Out of blackness arises a distorted coo, not unlike a coyote out on a plain, but with its howls run through a Superfuzz Bigmuff pedal. A cello diverges out of the fuzz, the voice and bowed strings then moving together. The black screen turns to the luminous aqua-blue of an underwater landscape. A black ribbon curls and unfurls, slowly revealing itself to be an unspooling cassette tape that floats past our eyes, as if in a dream.
We’re fully immersed in Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, the debut feature film from Brooklyn filmmaker Matt Wolf, celebrating one of the most beguiling fringe figures from New York’s downtown scene of the ’70s and ’80s. Russell partook in nearly every music scene the city had to offer: disco at David Mancuso’s Loft, rock at CBGB, minimal composition at the Kitchen, Allen Ginsberg’s poetry recitations. The film—featuring commentary from the likes of Ginsberg, ex–Modern Lover Ernie Brooks, composer Philip Glass, indie crooner Jens Lekman, and Arthur’s parents—makes its New York City debut this weekend as a part of the Kitchen’s retrospective on the man, with an ensemble of players like Brooks, Peter Zummo, Elodie Lauten (all of whom recorded with Arthur), and others performing his large-scale classical works like Tower of Meaning and The Singing Tractors.
And yet what makes the Arthur Russell story so compelling is that this celebration occurred not during his time, but well out of context in the 21st century—20 years after his brief blip on the underground dance-music map, and a good decade after his death from AIDS in 1992. “I found out about Arthur through the reissues from 2004, [Audika’s] Calling Out of Context and [U.K. Soul Jazz’s] World of Arthur Russell,” the twentysomething Wolf tells me as we sit in his backyard in Williamsburg, condominium construction banging all about us. “A friend described Arthur mythologically to me as this gay disco auteur who wore farmer-plaid shirts and would ride the Staten Island Ferry back and forth listening to various mixes of his own cassettes. That image was immediately intriguing to me, and I bought the music right away and became obsessively involved in listening to it.”
To describe Russell’s music in a single phrase or paragraph is nigh on impossible. When making dance sides, he fused Indian, African, reggae, jazz, and funk rhythms into a beguiling and pliant blend that defied categorization yet filled dance floors, becoming a staple at the Loft, Nicky Siano’s Gallery, and Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage during disco’s heyday. His modern compositions, made among peers like Glass, Steve Reich, and Rhys Chatham, were minimal yet highly lyrical: One set of work, entitled Instrumentals, hints at his underlying pop sensibilities. In the ’80s, the art songs he recorded (appearing as World of Echo and Another Thought) were beatless and beatific affairs, as if resounding from unfathomable depths courtesy of oceans of reverb and echo, which bathed his singular voice and cello playing.
Wolf, like the many others who’ve become enraptured by Russell’s enigmatic and polyglot music in this decade, developed a listening relationship that seemed almost one-on-one, as if Russell were murmuring directly in his head. Versed in experimental film and freelancing as a video editor for The New York Times Magazine‘s video segments, he began to reimagine what little he knew about Arthur’s biography: “My idea initially was to expressionistically render different scenes or situations that I thought might be related to the iconography of Arthur’s music, the places he traversed through his life.”
Emboldened, he reached out to Russell’s paramour, Tom Lee. “I right away thought that it will be interesting for a person of a different generation, who was not a witness of Arthur’s times, to make this film,” says Lee, who was wholly responsible for keeping Russell’s legacy alive, including his life’s work—some 800 reels of home recordings, along with boxes of DATs and cassettes. “After Arthur died, it was very hard for me not to continually play various songs to my friends and family,” he says. “It got so that I could just imagine hearing ‘Wild Combination/That’s Us’ on the radio—where I still feel that it should be heard. I was so wrapped up in every nuance of his music.”
Lee had reservations, though: “There was not very much footage of Arthur performing, and I remember being a little concerned that Matt might be discouraged when he discovered that.” Unlike today’s situation, wherein a band with barely a full set list can maintain a MySpace page, get video clips up on YouTube, and earn a Pitchfork profile—and where fans can be inundated with too much information too soon—the number of articles published on Russell in his lifetime can be counted on one hand. Having little extant footage of Russell performing actually helped the first-time director, though: “The lack of material was a productive constraint,” Wolf says. “It made the process more interesting.” Instead, he fills in the visual space with birthday parties and balloons, interspersed with the ecstatic dancers from the Gallery, along with tracking shots of corn fields and the wake of the Staten Island Ferry.
“There’s definitely ellipses and things left out of the film, that instead makes space for more expressionistic and visual material—or more emotional material with the family, the parents, and Tom,” Wolf continues. Rather than revel in music-trivia minutiae (as is the wont of most music documentaries), Wild Combination instead resonates on an emotional level, much like Russell’s most profound music does. We see Lee moved to tears while listening to Arthur’s voice calling out from an old tape; we’re in the Russells’ den, watching a slide show of Arthur as a young boy.
There was one problem with linear storytelling, though: “The film may suggest . . . that it was inevitable he did the avant-garde, and then he did disco, and then he did World of Echo,” Wolf says. “In fact, he was doing all of these things simultaneously. There wasn’t a linear progression of Arthur’s musical interest. It was all concurrent.”
In the end, though, Russell’s oeuvre remains an open-ended conversation, intimate and infinite. More material continues to see daylight (Audika plans to issue a set of cowboy/folk tunes in September). Each listener can engage Arthur Russell alone, imagine him whispering through iPod earbuds. In the film, there’s an archival tape from Ginsberg recounting his initial impressions of the man: “There was something that he exuded that was both delicate, exquisite-minded, and youthful, and at the same time oddly reticent.” Perhaps newcomers to Russell can take comfort in an internal Warner Bros. memo (dated 1979 and glimpsed briefly in the film) from a befuddled record executive: “Who knows what this guy is up to—you figure it out.”
The Kitchen will screen Wild Combination twice on May 15 and host Arthur Russell tribute concerts May 16-17, thekitchen.org