Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell's voice is simultaneously otherworldly and achingly human. The same is true of the man himself: Russell floats through Matt Wolf's touching, moody documentary Wild Combination like a ghost who seems to belong on a more ethereal plane.

Like Superman, Russell was an alien creature incongruously raised in the farmlands of the Midwest—he was an acne-scarred loner with an almost preternatural gift for the cello. A pot-smoking homosexual from a loving but conventional family, Russell left the Midwest for a more outsider-friendly commune in San Francisco, where he collaborated with Allen Ginsberg. In the '70s, he moved to New York, immersing himself in a downtown scene that blurred the line between straight and gay, black and white, artistic weirdness and pop. Russell was a contemporary of Philip Glass and David Byrne, even playing on an early take of "Psycho Killer." He then made a sharp detour from artier, noncommercial compositions to disco, releasing a number of dance-floor-friendly singles adorned with avant-garde flourishes before AIDS ravaged his body and lent an added element of squirmy vulnerability to his already heartbreaking music.


Wild Combination doesn't feature much footage of Russell, performance or otherwise, in part because he was painfully self-conscious about his acne, but he comes alive in the colorful stories and anecdotes of the people who loved him. Russell's voice dominates the film and lends it a mood of sustained, fragile melancholy. From today's vantage, he's as much myth as man. The genius of Wolf's quietly affecting documentary is that it gives audiences a window into its subject's soul while preserving the mystery at the core of his being.

Key features: Archival performances of several Russell pieces, audio footage of a letter from Russell to his parents, and tribute songs from a number of Russell's admirers.

Share This Story