Wild Combination: Arthur Russell as an Untroubled Genius

Wild Combination: Arthur Russell as an Untroubled Genius

First things first. If you’ve heard bits and pieces of Arthur Russell’s oeuvre and don’t like it, there’s no reason to be disappointed that you can’t enjoy his legacy. It’s actually pretty likely that there’s some stuff your ears haven’t been exposed to that you’d actually enjoy. Finding those songs, though, is gonna be difficult. And you’ll understand why after seeing Wild Combination.

Opening in the middle of nowhere Iowa, Russell’s parents detail his childhood a bit and still seem a bit upset about finding some weed in his room. At the same time, though, Russell’s father recounting his doling out a whooping after than transgression starts to get a bit teary eyed. We’re less than fifteen minutes into the feature.

There’re two themes running through this feature. First, everyone who knew Russell seemed to like him and recognized his unbridled talent. Second, everyone seemed to get emotionally attached to guy even if he eventually gave them a bit of trouble. But a bit of trouble seems to be the only bad thing anyone has to say about the guy. Ernie Brooks, who you should know from the Modern Lovers and a spate of later projects, recounts Russell hoping out of his van on the way to an out of town gig. The bassist doesn’t seem upset about Russell and his keyboard exiting, perhaps making the show difficult to get through. It was just a situation that cropped up as a result of having Russell around.

But playing with Brooks in a relatively traditional rock set up and simultaneously working on dance music as well as The World of Echo points to not just how many different instruments and ideas Russell had to work with, but the fact that he didn’t perceive any great difference between any of them. And that’s why his music continues to resonate.

Moving from dance clubs to avant garde theatre and presage some of the weepy folk strains so pervasive in today’s underground rock scene, Russell amassed a mostly unreleased body of work that probably ranks towards to the top of anyone performing during the same time. Most of Wild Combination, when not getting all sad sack at the lack of recognition Russell received is spent talking about how hard the guy worked on his music and how frequently he recorded. Concluding the film with a an explanation of how Russell’s music is now being released didn’t provide proper closure, but with such a sweetly wrought narrative, there couldn’t have been a wrong way to end the film.