Wild Combination - A Portrait Of Arthur Russell (Matt Wolf, 2008)
Documentaries about musicians can be tedious affairs, sometimes neglecting to include any examples of the music itself. Often, they serve merely to deify rather than to critique their subject matter. Matt Wolf’s debut film, about the songwriter and composer Arthur Russell, nimbly avoids these pitfalls.
Pre-release speculation suggested that Wolf’s film might falter due to a paucity of footage of Russell performing. This obstacle has, in the event, proved to be exaggerated, as Wolf’s combination of home video footage and solo recordings adds a sense of mystery that might have been lacking from more direct concert material. It contributes to the overall sense of sadness – emphasising the idea that Russell’s contemporary audience was far smaller than it should have been. Here was a man mainly creating music mainly for himself, simply because it was his life’s work to do so.
It’s significant that Wolf came to Russell’s music in the same way as most people – through the recent reissues that have come courtesy of the Soul Jazz and Audika labels. He’s not a lifelong Russell anorak – he’s simply recognised Russell’s musical significance and worthiness as a documentary subject. He’s managed to secure contributions from most of the significant figures in Russell’s life – including moving testimonies from his parents and his long term partner Tom Lee, in addition to the bewildering array of musical collaborators, admirers and former band-mates.
The film conveys a strong sense of Russell as an ambitious and committed musician, but one whose combination of revisionism and perfectionism often made him into an awkward person. The song that gives the film its title eventually appeared on the posthumous ‘Calling Out Of Context’ album – Russell had apparently worked on it for over five years. The need to be in control of every aspect of his work made him impossible to work with – he could be unreliable and frequently refused to co-operate with others. In some senses, it’s a shame that his theatre collaboration with Robert Wilson proved such a disaster, but it’s clear that Russell was never best suited to joint ventures.
This is just one sense in which the film refuses to portray Russell as anything other than deeply flawed. There’s a moving moment in which Tom Lee recounts discovering that Russell tested positive for HIV, whilst he had tested negative. ‘Of course this upset me’, he admits, ‘because I thought that we were totally monogamous but he must have been fooling around a bit. Sadly, it only takes one time…’
Wolf’s film is successful in presenting Russell as a confused, reflective person, desperate to escape the confines of his rural American upbringing, whose restless mind took him in countless different directions. Perhaps this explains both his apparent unfaithfulness and his commitment to explore all aspects of music, uninhibited by the narrow restrictions of genre. To Philip Glass, he was an eccentric member of an avant-garde community, whilst to Lola Love (who provided the demented vocal to Dinosaur L’s ‘Go Bang!’), he was ‘the funkiest white boy I ever saw’. Ernie Brooks of the Flying Hearts saw him as a songwriter to rival John Lennon. To himself, Russell must have been all of these things at once.
The film is mostly excellent in demonstrating Russell’s open-mindedness towards all forms of music. It goes some way in explaining how his different explorations – acoustic folk songs, disco tracks under a variety of monikers, instrumental compositions and performances with his electronically treated Cello - all fell under his broad category of sophisticated bubblegum. In all his forms, his strong sense of melody and harmony always cut through. Perhaps the film skirts over his composed work a little too quickly – we only hear a small segment of ‘Instrumentals’, and the significance of ‘World of Echo’ is probably understated too.
Despite these minor issues, the film still gives a powerful sense of Russell as a man for whom making music is the only priority. Lee admits that he effectively became the breadwinner in their partnership, with Russell mostly avoiding work in order to write and record music all day, every day, regardless of whether he would ever complete it. Seeing Lee trawling through the countless hours of tapes Russell left behind is undoubtedly touching, and provides evidence that the rediscovery of Russell’s music is a journey that has only just begun.
Like all good documentaries, Wolf’s film recognises that all this music was, in Keith Jarrett’s words, the end result of ‘a process that has nothing to do with music’. The film is excellent in recognising Russell’s physical awkwardness and the restrictions of his isolated youth, recounted with warm and sincere regret by his parents. The pull of the city represented dreams of freedom and liberation, an uninhibited desire to experiment expressed in Russell’s body of work as a whole. There’s also a powerful irony in the testimony that as he descended into AIDS-related illness and dementia, Russell’s musical gift continued to grow stronger.
Brilliantly edited, and combined with some poetic camerawork of Wolf’s own imagining, ‘Wild Combination’ explores how we can be most free and creative. Russell seemed to work best when he was purely self-directing – with no deadlines or commercial expectations. Sometimes he clearly ached to be successful – but was ultimately more interested in pure artistic expression for its own sake, simply following his mind wherever it took him. Yet there’s also something powerful in the film’s conclusion, which hints at Tom Lee’s burgeoning relationship with Russell’s parents, and his comfort in regularly visiting the rural land where Arthur grew up. Amusingly, the ‘Master Mix’ cap Arthur sports on the cover for ‘Calling Out of Context’ has nothing to do with DJing, but is rather advertising a mix of animal feed! Lee, an entirely devoted and genuine man, clearly feels most free and at peace returning to his lost lover’s roots.
At once celebratory and poignant, but careful and compassionate in recognising human and artistic failings, ‘Wild Combination’ is exactly what it purports to be – a portrait of its subject. Going well beyond the music, the film demonstrates how difficult, awkward people can so often seem so compelling and attractive. Counterfactual speculation as to what Russell might have achieved had he not died at 40 seems to miss the point, as his father observes sweetly – ‘well, we’d at least have had another 800 reels of tape…’