One reason it’s become so hard for new musicians to make an impact is because so many old ones — including deceased ones — are still being discovered (or rediscovered) thanks to the proselytizing efforts of those who somehow got turned on to their obscure work the first time around. In this media age, those stalwarts often make documentaries to help these overlooked cult musicians get their due.
PlexiFilm already has released one such DVD this year, You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story, and now comes another, Matt Wolf’s Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. A restlessly searching musician, primarily a New Music cellist but also a Nick Drake-like singer/songwriter and a dance-music producer, Russell died of AIDS in 1992 leaving a wealth of material but not much recognition.
Not only has Wolf found a compelling subject whose music’s beauty is evident on first hearing, but his film has been made with empathy and a soothing sense of pictorial beauty. It traces, through interviews and footage, both old and new, Russell’s life — from being a shy, gay, acne-scarred Iowa farm boy to first freedom at a Buddhist commune in San Francisco and then to Manhattan, where his work as an avant-gardist who believed he could also have hit records led to friendship with Philip Glass and others trying to do the same thing. But his demanding personality sometimes got in the way.
My main complaint with the 71-minute movie is that it’s too short to do Russell’s music justice, but the DVD provides 65 minutes of extras. Grade: B