Taking on the
legendary late composer and cellist.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
When cellist/producer Arthur Russell died in 1992 at age 40
from AIDS-related complications he left behind a legacy that included pre-house
music efforts such as Dinosaur
(1979’s “Kiss Me Again”) and Loose Joints (1980’s “Is It All Over My
Face”) as well as serving as the operator of Sleeping Bag Records. Russell
had a major role in the downtown NYC of the ‘70s and ‘80s and its avant-garde
vision of minimalist composition that would include contributions from usual
suspects Rhys Chatham, Jon Gibson, Peter Gordon, David Van Tieghem and Lenny Pickett.
Russell was a
Buddhist who hung out with Allen Ginsberg, was the music director at the
Kitchen and recorded and gigged with Philip Glass and David Byrne. Russell also
made a few stunning albums such as 24-24
Music, Tower of Meaning, Instrumental, and World of
Echo that sounded like all-of-the-above and none-of-the-above.
This was Manhattan of that era: a
Glorious mish-mashes were common then. But not like Arthur Russell’s. His
music, no matter what brand he was selling, tempered cool passion with
ferocious precision no matter what the target and without ever allowing itself
to breathe deep the rarified air of experimentalism at all costs.
That same Russell
had buckets full of unreleased works that have only recently begun to see/hear
the light of day. The pristine pop-folk of Love
is Overtaking Me, the jarring un-disco Springfield and the spare cello-and-voice filled reissue of World of Echo+ aren’t just the sound of money being made from
exploitative execs. It’s the mission of his long-time lover, his cherished
parents and film director Matt Wolf to
pursue Russell’s vision and see it become known to its fullest widest degrees.
partly why Wolf called his documentary Wild
“Wild Combination is from the title of Arthur’s song “That’s Us/Wild Combination,” a song he
rightfully believed would be a hit,” says Wolf, with the pride of holding dear
a subject he never knew or met before now. “I thought it was an evocative
metaphor, perhaps describing Arthur’s disparate interests in both avant-garde
music and pop.”
Wolf had zero relation to Russell (Wolf’s 26 and was 10 when
Russell passed) other than hearing recently released compilations Calling Out of Context and The World of Arthur Russell and being
amazed by their gentle ruminative nature – even the disco stuff. Yet Wolf was
compelled to explore Arthur’s biography because he saw him as an outsider gay
cultural figure and wanted to connect the dots between other artists and
cultural history that intrigues Wolf.
“Arthur seemed to float between so many compelling
luminaries,” claims Wolf, when pointing out the likes of Ginsberg, Glass and
Byrne. “Arthur’s nuanced and shy persona continues to intrigue me. Musically I
was immediately attracted to Arthur’s sensibility and his ability to deal with abstraction
and also bold pop. His “Calling Out of Context” became my favorite song for its
use of water metaphors and its experimentation with sound. Strangely, that song
never made it into the film. I guess that’s why I’m not sick of it.”
The first glimmer that there needed to be a film made on Russell’s
life and aesthetic came when Wolf met Tom Lee, Russell’s former partner. Wolf knew
immediately that his story and the connection Lee feels to Russell would
translate on screen. Lee led Wolf to the
composer’s parents, who themselves were rich, lovely people who would evoke
emotions that Wolf focused on throughout the film.
Glass and Ginsberg are seen in the film, as are some Talking
Heads. There is of course the key footage of Arthur Russell in those World of Echo performances he gave at
Phil Niblock’s space Experimental Intermedia during a video collaboration called
“Terrace of Unintelligibility.”
This footage by Niblock really guided the overall look of
the film, guiding Wolf to begin working with an outmoded VHS camera, to create
de-saturated color palettes and to embrace the grain and texture of old video
in stylized recreations and visuals. There’s crucial footage from Nicky Siano’s
club The Gallery interwoven with material filmed at the current manifestation
of David Mancuso’s loft party.
“This stuff really brought that period to life,” says Wolf.
“And as far as I can tell, it’s the only existing documentation of the
pre-Studio 54/ Paradise Garage underground dance party scene. It was important
to me to get that milieu right, and to not misrepresent ‘disco’ as something
more lavish or large-scale. It was crucial, too, to interview Lee and Arthur’s
partner for that the emotional arc of the film would depend on Tom’s
interpretation of Arthur’s story.
“In many senses Tom is the avatar for Arthur in the film,
and he had the most intimate take on Arthur’s life and work,” continues Wolf. “Tom
was like a collaborator since he guided me to many of the key players in
Arthur’s life. I wanted the people speaking about Arthur to feel like an
intimate family almost, but one that could speak truthfully about Arthur’s
contradictions and missteps, too.” But still the most gorgeous element of
Russell never even contains a picture of him. Instead, there is Wolf filming
the sky over Oskaloosa, Iowa, an impressionist vibe that you defined
Russell’s vaporous aesthetic as well as being borne out of necessity. There
wasn’t that much footage to be found of Russell.
“I wanted the primary experience of the film to be visual,
and so I knew I needed to make a visual language to bring his music to
life. But as you said, there isn’t much
footage of Arthur. So the visual
material became a useful tool to hear and experience music since there wasn’t
an abundance of performance footage.
“Either way, it’s not about factual information and knowing
more about Arthur. It’s about having an
emotional experience that deepens the viewer’s experience of Arthur Russell’s