A Poem Is a Naked Person
2015, NR, 90 min. Directed by Les Blank.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Aug. 7, 2015
It’s been a long road for A Poem Is a Naked Person, Les Blank’s doc on Leon Russell. Shot over a two-year period beginning in 1972, the film was never given a proper release, due to the perfect storm of creative differences between Russell and Blank, a falling out between Russell and Poem’s producer Denny Cordell, plus the problem of clearing music rights for the numerous songs in the film. Blank’s son Harrod has spent a number of years trying to clear those rights, and after 41 years, the film had its premiere at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival.
Russell was a star on the rise when he hired Blank to follow him around as he hung out in his studio near Tulsa, played concerts in New Orleans, and recorded sessions in Nashville. But this being a Les Blank film, Russell and his brand of swamp/country/rock music are only the half of it. Blank was often more interested in the cultural context of the music he was documenting, so there are many passages of the film in which Blank’s camera turns its lens to the rural denizens of Oklahoma, interviewing Russell’s elderly landlords (who are adorable), being shown the fine art of Okie noodling, attending tractor pulls, and often, just lingering on an abstract image of a sunset reflected on a rippling lake. There’s a great sequence in which legendary underground artist (and Armadillo World Headquarters poster designer) Jim Franklin calmly removes a number of scorpions from an empty swimming pool before turning that surface into a mind-blowing psychedelic mural. Add to that an excursion to a parachuting competition where one member toasts the film crew by downing a glass of beer, breaking the glass with his teeth, and then eating it, and you begin to understand the eccentric characters and amazing weirdness of a (now lost) America that Blank was celebrating.
But, hey man, what about the music? Well how about George Jones in a Nashville studio playing a haunting acoustic version of “Take Me”? Then there’s Willie Nelson belting out “Good Hearted Woman” at a honky-tonk. Those are lost gems found to be sure, but at the center of it all (although apparently not center enough, in the musician’s eyes) is hairy, wild-eyed Leon Russell himself. Blank’s camera closes in on Russell while the musician performs in close-quartered auditoriums to sweaty, rapturous crowds and commands the ivories on “Proud Mary,” “Jambalaya (on the Bayou),” not to mention his own hits, “Tight Rope,” “Shoot Out on the Plantation,” and “A Song for You.” Those scenes have a frenzied, church-revival vibe that conveys the transcendental power of music (and perhaps illicit substances). At one point, a rapt concertgoer enthuses about Russell, “The guy’s a gas!” So, too, is this thankfully restored film.