Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell is like an audiovisual kiss from Russell to those who loved him, and to a greater audience who has yet to discover him. That's the highest praise I can think of for Matt Wolf's movie about the composer and musician, who died of AIDS in 1992. Clearly enamored with Russell's wonderful and unique world of echoing sound, Wolf breaks free from the all-too-familiar generic commercial tropes of music documentaries to try a little tenderness. The gesture of affection is more than fitting: though Russell wasn't a pop sentimentalist, he was capable of writing entire songs (such as "A Little Lost" and "Lucky Cloud" from the 1994 album Another Thought) about equally entire days spent thinking about his lips pressing against those of his beloved. As he sang, "Kissing I go overboard."
That beloved is Russell's boyfriend Tom Lee, whose generous intimacy while being interviewed is one of the qualities that makes Wild Combination special. Though the Talking Heads are mentioned more than once as Wolf's movie follows Russell's idiosyncratic paths through the creative spots of downtown '80s New York, the film's chorus of commentators never falls into the kind of talking-heads detachment one associates with documentaries. There is a rare, moving intimacy to the camera's rapport with Lee and with Russell's Iowan parents, Chuck and Emily. That rapport only builds in the emotionally powerful final moments, yielding a story about love and family that, through sheer openhearted understatement, is a revelation. Think of it as a nonfiction answer to Brokeback Mountain: more shattering, nuanced, and hopeful because it is based in a commitment to creative life rather than manufactured myth.
"I'm watching out of my ear," Russell's voice declares, with characteristic quiet softness, as Wild Combination first flickers onto the screen. This synesthetic intuitiveness seems to guide the film as it simultaneously travels his life story and communes with his spirit. The cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes passes like wind through the corn fields of Russell's youth and the New York piers of his adult life, both of which provided lyrical inspiration. By simply tapping into Russell's relaxed and meditative creativity (at least when Russell was working solo), Wolf makes the film's charm and depth seem so easy. But subtly potent structural corollaries emerge, as when Chuck Russell's remembrance of a physical fight with his gentle yet maddening son is mirrored same words, but a recollection of a different situation by musician and friend Ernie Brooks.
Wild Combination is the first feature film by the 25-year-old Wolf, whose Web site (www.mattwolf.info) is a treasure trove of gay sensibility and whose early short films suggested an affinity for this kind of project. Wolf has already made a short fictive documentary about the late artist-writer David Wojnarowicz, a contemporary of Russell's in a Guardian article on Russell (see "Prince Arthur, 03/04/04), I compare the two who followed similar paths. That 2003 film, Smalltown Boys, possesses the acutely critical parodic imagination of early Todd Haynes movies, a rare characteristic. But Wolf has since graduated from Haynes' academic tendencies. He's soulfully true to Russell, whose idiosyncratic gifts and personality led him to butt heads with avant-garde heartlessness and dance through underground discos. While alive, Arthur Russell never found a creative home outside of himself and those he loved. But in Wild Combination, Wolf proves those homes are more than enough.