I think it is by now relatively uncontroversial to claim Arthur Russell as one of the most important underground musicians of the Twentieth Century. This was attested to by the fact that a recent screening at the ICA of Matt Wolf’s 2008 biographical documentary Wild Combination, apparently apropos of nothing whatsoever, was totally sold out. The film is admirably comprehensive as a chronological account of the musician’s life, broadly taking a traditional approach of talking heads and archive footage to tell the story of Arthur Russell from his early years as a young misfit growing up the Midwest, to his untimely death from AIDS. While everyone involved in Wild Combination clearly have a deep admiration for Arthur, the film is not breathlessly hagiographic about its subject. Instead, it portrays a complex and often flawed man who happened to create some of the most incredible music ever made. Indeed, the only major complaint which a fan might have about Wild Combination in terms of content is that, presumably due to copyright-related legal wrangling, no songs from what is probably Arthur’s most accomplished record, the posthumous Another Thought, are included in this film. These tracks are indescribably melancholically haunting, and it is impossible not to imagine that soundtracking the descriptions of Arthur’s deteriorating health in the latter third of the film with a song such as ‘Losing My Taste for the Nightlife’ would have augmented the emotional impact of these scenes no end. On the other hand, however, it seems tasteless to wonder how best to musically hammer home the pathos of an anecdote as devastating as Charles Arthur Russell Sr.’s of the last words his son said to him: Having regularly reprimanding Arthur as ‘a bad sport’ whenever he misbehaved as a boy, Arthur’s father describes how, while combing his ailing son’s thinning hair, he called Arthur ‘a good sport’, and Arthur, having then succumbed to dementia, turned to him with a wry smile and asked ‘Are you sure?’. It is moments such as these which really elevate the film above its otherwise conventional form. Aided by all his interviewees’ evident fondness for Arthur, even those for whom the musician was clearly infuriatingly difficult, Wolf manages to draw from these individuals genuinely unguarded and candid reminiscences and comments. Likewise, Wolf’s frequent willingness to spend far longer than is customary for this style of documentary lingering upon a well-worn recording of a performance by Arthur, or elements in an establishing montage, ruptures, or at least suspends, the film’s otherwise propulsive narrative momentum. 05 This is precisely why the film suits its subject so well. That is because, similarly, Arthur Russell’s music is not so overwhelmingly powerful because it is otherworldly or totally sui generis, but because central to it is a properly uncanny twofold movement of familiarity and unfamiliarity. As Allen Ginsberg relays during the film in archive footage, Arthur self-confessedly wanted to produce “Buddhist bubblegum”; to infuse fundamentally pop structures with elements of the avant-garde, which then, in the wake of Cage and La Monte Young, was largely informed by Eastern Philosophy. Unfortunately, during his lifetime Arthur never achieved the commercial success of pop, with the exception of his disco record ‘Go Bang’ (the account of the making of which by the unintentionally hilarious Will Socolov is one of the most entertaining parts of the film). Yet, in artistic terms he certainly attained the synthesis for which he was aiming: Even the most experimental of Arthur’s compositions rarely lack a kernel of deep melody, and, conversely, what ostensibly appear to be his most prosaic folk rock songs actually have incredibly complex chord structures, as Ernie Brooks acknowledges during the film. Yes, Arthur’s heavily reverbed cello is constantly on the precipice of discordance, and his voice is always undulating, almost faltering. However, in this style he played compositions which, in other hands, could be rendered contrived and sentimental (witness the recent cover version of ‘This is How we Walk on the Moon’ by Jose Gonzalez, who of course has a history of neutering enigmatic music). While most pop restricts itself to a limited sonic palate, Arthur Russell opened the form to a fuller spectrum of sound, which accounts for his work’s power over and above its brute catchiness. Similarly, it is by incorporating unexpected elements that Wild Combination is more than the sum of its parts: I for one would never have thought that a documentary which formally does not differ massively from a BBC obituary film would have me choking back tears in the cinema.

Daniel Neofetou

Reeling The Real is a website dedicated to the discussion of all kinds of moving image including documentary, film essays, archive re-use, artists' moving image and more.

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