Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

Movies Reviews Arthur Russell
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

Release Date: Nov. 18
Director: Matt Wolf
Cinematographer: Jody Lee Lipes
Studio/Run Time: Plexifilm, 71 mins.

Uneven documentary maps journey of abstract music savant

You know you’re bound for notoriety and distinction when minimalist composer Philip Glass describes you as “eccentric,” no matter what trade you specialize in. This proved especially true for Arthur Russell, a musical savant and ambient maestro who indefinitely stretched the definition of pop music during his forty short years as a cellist, vocalist and disco producer.

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, chronicles the eccentric composer’s life from his early life in Oskaloosa, Iowa– from which he fled in the 1960s after his father discovered his marijuana stash– to his death from AIDS in 1992. In between, he stood at the nexuses of San Francisco and New York City’s art communities, where he collided with such figures as David Byrne, Ernie Brooks and Allen Ginsberg. But the documentary also addresses the bittersweet undertones of Russell as a boy embarrassed by his acne scars, and as a man who fell deeply in love with his partner Tom Lee, who would balance Russell’s intense temperament throughout their time together.

Director Matt Wolf matches his subject’s gradual tempos and warbling vocals with grainy b-reel stretches of ambient imagery and lingering video of Russell recording and performing. This serves as the film’s greatest asset and a major distraction: While the artful delivery perfectly marries Russell’s aesthetic into sound and show, the actual story is splintered and lags. It never quite finds the right middle ground to tell a story and make a music video in tandem, and its determination to do both results in a thoughtful but meandering expose of one of music’s truly alternative icons.

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell will be shown at the Museum of Modern Art on December 5 and December 19.

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