There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, which can be found on Amazon Prime.
It’s crazy looking back on the 70 odd entries I’ve made in this column over the nearly two years it’s been up and running. Some of them were easy to write, free-flowing out onto the page over a couple of hours, while others were considerably more difficult to get a handle on and required massive overhauling and editorial manhandling to hammer them into some semblance of legibility. Most of them have been about musicians and bands that I didn’t know much about, fun little learning excursions to hopefully discover something new worth sharing, but there were a few that I went in to with a predisposed passion for. These were movies that I was proactively excited to foist onto anyone who had the good fortune to cross paths with my byline.
This week is one of the latter, possibly the most undiluted example of that side of the coin, in fact, because we’re finally taking a good looking at Wild Combination: a Portrait of Arthur Russell. Most music nerds have someone that they champion more than any other, big upping them to anyone who gives you even the slightest opportunity. Avant garde cellist Arthur Russell fills that role in my life, and now I get to go on the record here as an official advocate.
Russell's story is one of the most unlikely I’ve ever come across and, to be honest the film (which clocks in at a lean 71 minutes) barely does him justice. There are so many moments where you’ll be saying to yourself “wait wait go back, I want to know more about...” but instead we keep on chugging into the next thing. A quick rundown of Russell’s career trajectory is insane: Born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, at the age of 18 he runs off to be a buddhist in San Francisco, which is where he meets Allen Ginsberg, who brings him on as an accompanist for poetry readings. Russell then heads to New York and plays off and on with the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads, as well as modern classical composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. In the early ‘80s Russell gets an itch to make twisted disco records under the name Dinosaur L and Loose Joints. They slay. By the time he dies from AIDS in 1992 he has released only three relatively obscure albums under his own name. A decade or so later a couple of compilations come out which get some hype from mainstream music sites that kicks off a renewed interest in his body of work, which is great because he left behind almost a thousand reels of recordings in various stages of completion.
That fantastic life’s story, as much as his actual music, makes for an easy artist to champion. He had his fingers in a dozen downtown art scenes but was juuuust unheralded enough himself to feel like a truly new discovery for everyone who has since encountered the shockingly timeless feeling his music leaves you with. Wild Combination bakes in all that backstory, but goes one further and offers an interesting new angle: that of the artist who is rediscovered and embraced, complete with an archive bursting at the seams. These tracks, only recently released, aren’t merely capable of being inserted into the fast-moving stream of modern music, but they’re outright begging to strike up a dialogue with practically anything you could throw at them from the world of pop, house, soul, or electronic music. Russell might have passed on, but there’s still so much life to be unearthed in his prolific amount of output.
The most fascinating and complex element of Wild Combination has to do with Russell's parents, whose arc through their son’s life reveals a profound shift away from the midwestern conservatism of his childhood (which pushed their boy to run off to San Francisco to begin with) to a place of compassion and earnest open minded acceptance of his art and sexuality. Watching as his father recounts regretfully how he treated his son as a child is heartbreaking, but it’s a testament to the possibility that conceptual evolution is possible over time, despite how rare it may appear in our everyday lives.
Another reason I was especially excited to see that this was out there and available to be streamed was because it was originally released on DVD by Plexifilm, a company that shuttered in 2010 and left a bunch of great music docs in limbo. Thanks to Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Labs, though, it looks like this has been saved from purgatory and is out there for one and all to discover. I swear, for every good doc I’ve covered here, there are two more that are just impossible to track down as part of easy subscription options, so enjoy this while you can.
Arthur Russell is indirectly described in the film with the line “Not many people allow themselves the full extent of their complexity.” I like that. For me, it’s just attention deficit disorder, but for him being in a constant state of creative restlessness is an example of exploring the farthest reaches of his sometimes contradicting artistic impulses. It’s in those intersections where Russell is his best though, making music that was “Buddhist Bubblegum,” as he described his self-assigned genre to Allen Ginsberg. Melodies you can meditate on. The zen koan as ragga earworm. His backlog of work is a chaotic mess of overlapping reissues and reworks, but it rewards digging, and Wild Combination is an excellent first step into those rich waters for the otherwise uninitiated.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.