The Austin Chronicle

DVD Watch

Reviewed by Doug Freeman, November 14, 2008, Screens

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

Plexifilm, $24.99

When Arthur Russell passed away from AIDS in 1992, his music was little-known outside of the NYC underground scene and cadre of elite avant-garde composers. Since Audika Records began reissuing his work four years ago, however, Russell has posthumously attracted a fervent following, and Matt Wolf's documentary arrives in the midst of this swell in demand to know more about the eccentric artist with the uncanny cello and hauntingly displaced vocals. Russell's music was wildly eclectic; he collaborated with experimental composer Philip Glass and poet Allen Ginsberg and was involved in New York's disco-evolving club scene in the late 1970s. Wolf expertly matches both Russell's intricate ambient textures and dance-floor beats with impressionistic, grainy montages, though it is his attempt to balance the inseparable aspects of the man with the artist that drives the film. Following Russell from his unlikely rural Iowa upbringing to 1960s San Francisco and then his ultimate creative epicenter in New York, the documentary moves too swiftly through Russell's early years but compensates with deeply personal interviews with his parents and his partner, Tom Lee. The portrait that emerges is of an auteur caught between worlds: the heartland he grew up in and the vibrant NYC artistic community he helped foster; the ambitious genius of his work and self-defeating paranoia of success; his deep love for Lee and his need for isolation and withdrawal from the world. The film includes footage of performances and unreleased songs, brutal and beautiful, from Russell's final years, as AIDS overtook his body. Wolf leaves with an eye toward Russell's legacy, with Glass, Ginsberg, David Toop, and the Modern Lovers' Ernie Brooks all arguing the revolutionary nature of his music and the artist as always ahead of his time, while Swedish indie-popster Jens Lekman and Audika's Steve Knutson consider his contemporary influence. Wolf has presented a moving and vital document of an extraordinary artist whose work is only just now beginning to receive the attention it deserves.

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