Matt Wolf Dusts Off Musical Wunderkind

The New Issue: Arthur Russell

Andrew Belonsky: Arthur Russell counts as your first foray into straight-up documentary storytelling. What’s been the most difficult part of the format?

Matt Wolf: The most difficult part of making a documentary about somebody whose no longer around is finding images and footage of them and bringing them to life. Arthur was recorded on the radio talking a few times, and he was filmed in concert at various times in his life, but otherwise I’m relying on his family, collaborators, and boyfriend to bring him to life. We even filmed an actor in the distance in some of Arthur’s old clothes on the Staten Island Ferry and by the West Side piers. These are kind of ambiguous reenactments (no face, and old looking formats) that help bring Arthur out.

AB: I know from personal experience that researching and exploring someone so intently can lead to internalization. It can affect you. Have you found that to be the case with the Russell project?

MW: Yeah. Internalization is the perfect word to describe making a film about a biographical subject. In this case, the music is the most direct link to Arthur – his voice, his creative life and his ideas. I’ve listened to so many of his songs – hundreds of times- that I feel like they’re a part of me now. I know them in a deeper way.

AB: Do you hear his music differently? Do you understand his technique more?

MW: I’m not sure if I hear his music differently, but when I incorporate a song into the film, its meaning or significance definitely changes. Arthur produced so much unfinished work that’s archived on thousands of tapes. Audika Records is preparing a new album of songs and recently transferred numerous tapes. Hearing [these] new songs or fragments of songs in progress is particularly exciting. Since I’ve been dealing with a specific body of work, new pieces to that puzzle are always fascinating.

AB: What do you hope to accomplish with this project?

MW: I hope the film introduces Arthur and his music to a much wider audience and deepens the experience of his music for people who already have a connection to it. Hopefully the film’s shown in contexts that aren’t specifically music-focused and that people appreciate it as a great movie!

AB: When we chatted last year, you indicated a shift away from the sexuality part of homosexuality. You wanted to explore a broader cultural history. Your words:

I’m interested in cultural history. Through whatever kind of film I’m making, there’s going to be some sort of contextual elements to it that build upon a larger cultural history.

I understand the Russell project isn’t an explicitly “gay” flick, but have you rethought or recontextualized contemporary expressions of queerness?

MW: Yeah, I think the film is totally queer. As I’m starting to show the film in its rough manifestations to different people, I’m realizing the different ways that I chose to represent the material and to tell Arthur’s story. And I think I definitely have a queer perspective. I see Arthur’s close relationship with his then boyfriend, Tom Lee to be central to his creative life. Arthur may not have explicitly identified as a gay musician. As much as disco was a queer context, and Arthur produced seminal records, it wasn’t really his scene or his home. In the film Arthur says, “I stopped dancing… well I never really started.” I think disco was just another musical context in which Arthur could explore his ideas.

AB: What about in terms of music. I imagine you’ve been immersed in Russell’s experimental sound, so do you approach music in general from a different perspective?

MW: I definitely listen to music very differently since making this film. I never really approached the project as an intense “music
nerd” with encyclopedic knowledge or reference points; I was fascinated by Arthur as a character and I loved his music. I love working with music in films. I think my perspective may be different – less focused on musical process or techniques. I really think of Arthur as an artist who was working with sound. Now when I listen to music – pop music or more experimental work – I really think about sound in a different way.

AB: What’s something new you’ve learned about yourself through this project?

MW: Something new I’ve learned about myself… Patience pays.

For more on the flick, click here. And, of course, visit Wolf’s website.

Here’s the trailer!