Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell is named after one of the titular musician’s songs, but it also describes the relationship between the Iowan teen runaway and the 1970s downtown New York counterculture he helped define at its multicultural, pansexual peak.
Russell was a beguiling composite of divergent traits: shy, yet forceful; avant-garde with pop sensibilities; a perfectionist who never met a deadline and painfully insecure about his talents despite genius. His reticence and transmutability—he struggled to accept his homosexuality—formed a charisma that drew people in just as his stubborn work ethic repelled them. The most heartrending moments in the film are the interviews with those who never questioned their allegiance to the complicated, difficult man: his overwhelmingly decent parents— have Kleenex ready for their segments—and his boyfriend, Tom Lee.
Russell’s music imbues Wild Combination with hypnotic grace. The documentary’s most vivid moments feature how-did-they-get-this footage of ecstatic dancers at legendary downtown clubs like The Loft. Russell drew on the orgiastic ferment of the 1970s New York underground with nods to disco, soul, folk, spoken word and the ambient “echo noise” that later defined the New Wave movement. The movie expertly captures that dynamic, bygone time that claimed Russell, who died of AIDS in 1991, as a victim.
Wild Combination is the rare film chronicle of art that registers as art itself. It is a compliment to say that the films more esoteric shots—wake from the Staten Island ferry, spasmodic bursts of monochrome synced to the music, lyrical shots of farmland—are reminiscent of the gorgeous, calculated randomness of Russell’s work itself.