‘A Poem Is A Naked Person’, Les Blank’s superb forgotten film on Leon Russell and his pals

Listen to our playlist “Leon Russell everywhere” on Playmoss.

Almost forty years without speaking a word to each other or talking about “their drama” with anyone else. The filming of the documentary A Poem Is A Naked Person was settled like a bitter divorce. Despite the fact that around 1972 the musician Leon Russell and the filmmaker Les Blank seemed destined to be two peas in a pod. Russell had established himself as one of the most precious and sought after session musicians in all of Los Angeles during the previous decade: Bob Dylan, George Harrison, The Byrds and The Monkees are among those who employed his services as keyboard player and arranger. Aside from forming an integral part of the Wrecking Crew, the elite of musical soldiers of fortune, Russell also contributed to producer Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” (he plays keys on The Ronnettes “Be My Baby”). And already in the midst of a full-fledged solo career, he climbed up to second place on the list of album sales with his third album, Carney, in 1972. It was then that the producer Denny Cordell saw an occasion not to be missed: they had to film a documentary on that gifted musician who, before turning thirty years old, the whole world had recognized as a deep well of true American musical knowledge. Country, blues, gospel and rock n’ roll seemed braided into his jungle-like beard. And to capture his cinematic portrait they had the perfect guy: Les Blank, responsible for the striking documentary The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1970) and of a short on counter-culture youth in the Californian megalopolis, God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance (1968). What happened then that leads to the resulting marvelous little film to accumulate dust in an attic in San Francisco?

screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-10-48-27

There was no problem of infrastructure. Les Blank and his assistant, Maureen Gosling, resided for the duration of the two years they were filming in the luxurious hippy camp – which included a recording studio – on Russell’s property in front of the Great Lake of the Cherokees, in his natal Oklahoma. Russell didn’t want to be hassled and authorized the filming of a concert, a recording session, a wedding and little else. The congenial yet timid Bob Dylan also prohibited any camera presence during his visit to the recording studios, where they were cooking up versions of country classics. What did Les Blank do then? His specialty: go out hunting for picturesque moments of the daily lives of both visitors and people that lived in the area around the lake and the nearby city of Tulsa. A man mulling over a crystal glass in a parachuting exhibition, the psychedelic Texan painter Jim Franklin completing a mural in a pool populated by scorpions, the demolition of a building, a snake swallowing a little chick while it’s owner theorizes on the iniquity of global capitalism, he himself (Blank) reaching second base with a girl in the midst of some serious revelry…and why not? What Les Blank took fro his long visit, was a vibrant, intense, fascinating collage of musical passages by Russell and his friends (among them, George Jones and Willie Nelson) on one hand, and the vignettes of life in rural Oklahoma on the other. What Les Blanks produced is simply one of the best rock documentaries that I have ever seen. But it wasn’t what Leon Russell was expecting. Bye-bye film. Speak with my lawyer.

Les Blank with titles of A Poem Is A Naked Person (Cropped) 1974

End of story? No, thank the lord. Harrod Blank, the documentary filmmaker and Les’ successor, wrote to Leon Russell in 2013 a few months before the death of his father. He invited him to the last screening of the film, which up until then had been authorized for numerous screenings, always under the condition that Les Blank be present. Russell declined the invitation but wished them luck without a hint of bitterness; let bygones be bygones. The response pleased Les Blank who was facing his last days; after all, it was the first he had heard of Leon without lawyers mediating. His son made amends with the musician and, after Les Blank’s death they embarked on a two-month negotiation (which included some small editing of the film) until Russell gave it the green light. Janus Films bought the film and now we can finally all see it.

To be fair, one can understand why Russell didn’t get behind the film at first. In it, the director doesn’t even bother to feign enough interest to explain to the world who Leon Russell is. He even seems a bit terrified by the screaming rowdiness of the freak-show experience of live rock music. But it’s precisely because of the fact that he alludes to his protagonist, that the film becomes a palpitating time capsule. Forty years is nothing. –TONI L. QUEROL

Listen to our playlist “Leon Russell everywhere” on Playmoss.

a-poem_poster