Over the weekend, I watched one of the best music documentaries I’ve seen in an age. “Wild Combination” is subtitled “A Portrait Of Arthur Russell”, and I can only defer to The New Yorker for a start, who noted about the film, “This story begins, as many good ones do, with a gay man from Oskaloosa, Iowa, playing cello in a closet in a Buddhist seminary.”

Over the weekend, I watched one of the best music documentaries I’ve seen in an age. “Wild Combination” is subtitled “A Portrait Of Arthur Russell”, and I can only defer to The New Yorker for a start, who noted about the film, “This story begins, as many good ones do, with a gay man from Oskaloosa, Iowa, playing cello in a closet in a Buddhist seminary.”

It’s a lovely film, and a rare one in that it manages to precisely but subtly analyse both the music and the personality of Russell – understanding that both are obviously interdependent – through a bunch of very intimately-handled interviews. The director, Matt Wolf, resorts to that old trick of wavering landscape shots to complement the archive clips of Russell. But even the tracking shots of Midwestern cornfields, or of generic “solitary man on the Staten Island ferry in headphones” are executed with a grace that’s much more evocative than these sort of things usually are.

Cornfields apart, anyway, Russell emerges from the movie as a fascinating figure, consumed by music to such a degree that he seems in part too paralysed to be able to finish and release much of it. Wolf doesn’t fixate on one of Russell’s myriad styles in particular, but discreetly makes connections between the different strands he pursued: the avant-garde compositions; the plaintive voice-and-cello experiments; the kinetic disco tracks he pursued; the tentative forays into singer-songwriter territory. As sundry auspicious talking heads – including Allen Ginsberg (archival, obviously) and Philip Glass – make clear, Russell’s constant and dogged blurring of the margins between pop and the avant-garde were one of his greatest strengths. David Toop (the only journo featured, mercifully) points out at one stage something like, if you listen to your music in a certain way, the noises start displaying affinities that transcend apparently oppositional genres.

If that’s overly theoretical, even a cursory listen to Russell’s music – or a listen in the movie to the powerful testimonies of his parents and his lover, Tom Lee (Russell died in 1992) – should make clear that what he did was actually immensely humane. That warmth and vulnerability comes across very strongly on “Love Is Overtaking Me”, the latest batch of Russell’s unreleased material (there’s something like 800 reels of the stuff) to see the light of day.

This lot privileges Russell’s most accessible side, ostensibly rooted in a tradition of singer-songwriting that one suspects must have been anathema to some of his stricter leftfield cohorts. “Love Is Overtaking Me” apparently draws on material from the early ‘70s right up to his death, and involves a bunch of his rapidly-aborted “band” projects (The Flying Hearts, plus some I’ve never heard of; The Sailboats, Bright & Early, the excellently-named Turbo Sporty). Some of the stuff was purportedly recorded by John Hammond, of all people, but I don’t have the details on which is which.

No matter. Everything kind of fits together here, from the tiny, beautiful country-folk sketches where Russell sounds a little like James Taylor, through to marginally sturdier band pieces, where his connections with The Modern Lovers are fairly apparent. Occasionally, he sounds unnervingly like Jose Gonzales, which can be a bit disconcerting, but unlike Gonzales, these songs don’t feel like rote exercises in heart-on-sleeve folksy songwriting.

And constantly, there’s that blurring of genres: the way “Goodbye Old Paint” begins like one of his “Instrumentals” fragments (as collected on “First Thought, Best Thought”, my favourite Russell music), then evolves into a perfect little country song; or how “What It’s Like” has a languidly soulful undertow, as a horn section artfully manoeuvres into the space between the electric guitar, the organ and Russell’s wry, semi-spoken vocal about loving a preacher in the tall grass (someone’s just said it sounds like “Wonderful Tonight”, actually). There are songs which recall some of “Calling Out Of Context”, maybe, like “Planted A Thought” where his voice and cello are tentatively tracked by dance machine beats. And then there’s “Eli”, which features his frail high voice and cello, and appears to be about a dog. This one’s in “Wild Combination”, and it’s extraordinary.