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Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 10, 2008 3:10PM

2008_10_10arthur_russell.jpg As Duke Ellington might have said, Arthur Russell was a musician and composer "beyond category." In his short life (he died of complications from AIDS at the age of 40) he composed and recorded music that could be classified as folk, disco, ambient, classical, pop and even country. He was born in Iowa and followed in his mother's footsteps by taking up the cello as a child. Later he moved to San Francisco (befriending Allan Ginsberg) and then eventually New York City, where he became a catalyst in the art scene of the 70's as musical director of The Kitchen. Ginsberg, who lived in the same apartment building as Arthur for many years, described his music as "Buddhist bubblegum," and it's that sly tension between childlike joy and a more cerebral experimentation that has posthumously made him a favorite of David Byrne, Jens Lekman and Pitchfork.

Matt Wolf's new documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, which runs at the Siskel through Tuesday, is quite simply one of the best films about music we've ever seen. It weaves together fascinating interviews (ranging from Arthur's parents and his longtime companion Tom Lee to musicologist David Toop and composer Philip Glass) with lengthy excerpts of Arthur's music but doesn't get bogged down in discographical minutiae. It's reverent without overlooking Arthur's faults (the 1,000+ tapes left behind after his death certainly describe a perfectionist who had trouble finishing things). Best of all Wolf uses a number of evocative lo-fi techniques to create impressionistic "image bridges" that capture Russell's essence: running through a cornfield, standing on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry, prowling a club's dance floor. Wolf's movie respects the inherent mystery of the creative process. It's an inspiring look at a life that, despite its tragic abruptness, was still overflowing with richness.