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Eyeballin': Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

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A shy and awkward Iowan prairie boy sits down in front of the camera somewhere in late 1970s New York, and out comes one of the most enigmatic and genre-confounding voices of our time. Recently released DVD Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell is less of a documentary and more of a deeply personal, posthumous tribute to Russell's life and work as one of the foremost unsung figures of '80s left-field, avant-garde pop and disco.

Russell's sound is full of soulful, strange, and faltering mantras, rhythmic and percussive electronic cello and exotic, funky beats. Filmmaker Matt Wolf introduces the viewer with an intimate portrayal of Russell's childhood by his parents, who are as instrumental to the film as featured artists Allen Ginsberg, Talking Heads, the Modern Lovers' Ernie Brooks, Philip Glass and giants of the '70s DJ and disco scene, including Larry Levan and Francois Kevorkian. 

The Wild Combination trailer

Russell grew up in Oskaloosa, Iowa, studied the cello, discovered experimental composition and became interested in Buddhism and North Indian music. The film follows Russell on his circuitous travels, first to San Francisco, where he joins a Buddhist commune and is forced to practice cello for hours in a closet.

It's here that he meets Allen Ginsberg and develops a close, collaborative friendship. Ginsberg describes Russell's music, which expresses both his spiritual leanings and his paradoxical desire to become a pop star, as "Buddhist bubble gum." Russell eventually fled when he was asked to give up his cello as property of the commune.

He then hit the New York scene, and here the film picks up and highlights a very energetic period as Russell gets involved and eventually becomes musical director of the Kitchen and goes into collaboration with a host of artists including David Byrne and Rhys Chatham.

After an introduction to the Modern Lovers, he forms the Flying Hearts with that group's former bassist Ernie Brooks. Russell's music flows in several directions, each with its own pseudonym: By turns, Russell is Killer Whale, Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, and Indian Ocean.

He cofounded Sleeping Bad Records, experimented with disco and dance music and later collaborated with Lola Love (above), funk and disco diva and former James Brown backup singer. Love describes Russell as "the funkiest white boy [she] ever met" and goes crazy on "Go Bang," which was rereleased in 2004 on Soul Jazz Records' The World of Arthur Russell.

Another thing about Russell was that he was a prolific, but obsessive, artist who built an enormous body of unfinished work that was never released. The film does an apt job of expressing others' frustration and resignation toward a man who was as difficult to work with as he was brilliant.

But Wild Combination's most powerful theme is one of devotion, especially that of his partner of 12 years, Tom Lee (right), who supported Russell unconditionally until his death of AIDS in 1992. The film gives added grace to albums like World of Echo, originally recorded in 1986 by Phil Niblock and rereleased by Audika in 2004, and Calling Out of Context, which was finally released that same year, and now Love Is Overtaking Me (Rough Trade Records).

The greatest thing about Russell's music is that it is never oversentimental, as much as the lyrics or subject matter might suggest. Songs like "Walking on the Moon," "Soon To Be Innocent Fun," and "Platform On The Ocean," as well as his more avant-garde albums like First Thought Best Thought (Audika, 2006) all have a mournful edge, a lulling drone or some semblance of the Buddhist idea of the Void, and are far more affecting than some dry, academic composition.

Russell honestly believed that music could heal; he also knew that his music would have a wider audience. The emergence of his previously unreleased material, his steadily growing cult following, and now Wild Combination, are proof of his soon-to-be iconic status. - Kathy F. Mahdoubi

Plexifilm, $24.99.

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