A talk with Harrod Blank about his father Les Blank’s masterpiece, A Poem Is A Naked Person

Between Thought and Expression, And a Father and Son

Apr 13, 2016 Web Exclusive Photography by Courtesy of the Criterion Collection Bookmark and Share


There’s a cautionary tale to be found in A Poem Is A Naked Person, the unreleased Les Blank film about musician Leon Russell. Blank, who had started to make a name for himself for his short films, was contracted by Leon Russell and Denny Cordell, Russell’s manager, to shoot footage for a documentary Russell had envisioned, one that would capture the excitement and the thrills and life of a man who was at the peak of Rock & Roll stardom. Blank, a man who would become a master filmmaker with a brilliant eye and knack for capturing mood on film, was hired to make a film that would evoke the whirlwind life of a rock star.

And here is where the story starts to derail. What follows is the story of a somewhat naive filmmaker and his belief that the footage he was shooting was to be his movie, while those who had hired him to simply shoot footage had a different vision in mind. Ultimately, these creative disagreements and fundamental misunderstanding of his job duties would result in A Poem Is A Naked Person being unceremoniously shelved, much to the dismay and despair of its creator, rarely seen for the next forty years. 

Les Blank died in 2013, and his primary deathbed wish was that Harrod Blank, his son, remaster A Poem Is A Naked Person. Harrod, who had worked alongside his father since childhood, knew of the sad legacy of the film Les Blank considered his masterpiece—and he also had a foresight into the reasons the film stayed unreleased and why Blank and Russell, who had appeared to be two like souls, never spoke again until a chance email shortly before Blank’s death. This spark of a reconciliation would soon result in the release of this long-lost film, one we’re hesitant to call a documentary, but one we no doubt can declare to be one of Les Blank’s finest moments. 

We sat down with Harrod Blank to discuss his father’s masterpiece, which was just released on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Joseph Kyle (Under the Radar): A Poem Is A Naked Person was being touted as this great lost documentary about Leon Russell from the height of his career, but when I watched It, I definitely didn’t think of it as a documentary at all. To me, it felt like what made your father’s work so intriguing: it’s a film that’s nominally about Leon Russell, but is ultimately about something greater, something more transcendent than its subject. 

Harrod Blank: He would agree with your assessment. He would have called it a “lyrical poem.” In fact, this was Les’ first feature and it came after The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, which was a total lyrical poem. Leon and his co-producer Denny Cordell both saw it, and they loved it, and it really made them seek Les out to work on their documentary. It’s something that’s made the whole story of Poem and the falling out so surprising, because on some level, they knew what kind of filmmaker Les was and they knew what they were getting. When Poem came out, Leon was really disappointed by what he saw, and he didn't gravitate towards it like Les had hoped he would. Denny Cordell signed off on it, and said he thought it was a great film, and he really loved it. But Leon? Leon wasn’t happy with it at all.  

Leon’s main critique was that it wasn’t a Leon Russell documentary, but a Les Blank film, and, really, that’s a pretty fair assessment. 

Leon is right on the money about that. This was 1974, and Leon was at the top of his career. He was a hot, popular artist, and his expectation was to have this movie come out that captured what it was like for him at this great moment in his life. But instead, he got an art film with a snake eating a newborn chicken, a man eating a glass, and all this other really weird stuff, and it wasn’t what he wanted at all. He must have felt, “Well, this is just too weird, this isn’t going to help my career, and it might just hurt it,” and I can’t say that I disagree with that.  Leon looked at this and thought, “Why did I spend all this money on a film about Les Blank, when I am supposed to be the star of the picture?”  Even though Les is my dad, I have to side with Leon on this. 

Did Les ever understand that criticism?

He never did. Les was an extremely sensitive person, and he really took it to heart that Leon didn’t like it, and even when Les was told he couldn’t go on tour with Leon, he really took it personally. But when he was told he couldn’t even show the movie, that really broke his heart; he was devastated. He really believed that Poem was his masterpiece, and he felt that had it been released, not only would the film have propelled his profile as a filmmaker, but it also would have given him recognition for being this really artistic, original, offbeat filmmaker. In spite of what happened with the film, he still kept making movies, and I think that had it come out in 1974, it would have solidified Les’ career at a much younger age. 

Poem seems to serve as a cautionary tale for young documentarians and the importance of subjectivity. I’ve read that every documentary filmmaker has that one early film that crosses the line; I’m reminded of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and his relationship with its subject, Randall Dale Adams, and more recently of Ondi Timoner’s  DiG!, which documents Anton Newcombe and Brian Jonestown Massacre, but really comes across as a character assassination.  After this was behind him, do you think Les learned any lessons from this experience in terms of remaining objective as a filmmaker?

No, I don’t think he learned a thing. (Laughs) After Poem, he took on several more films for hire on famous musicians like Ry Cooder and Huey Lewis & The News. Those two were work-for-hire, and ultimately went unreleased. The Cooder film was more of a concert film that he wasn’t happy with, but the Huey Lewis project was a documentary of his world tour, and many of the same problems and issues once again came up.  Les didn’t learn that fundamental lesson; when it was a work for hire and he was getting paid, he liked getting paid. There’s something nice about getting paid at the end of the week! (Laughs) When you’re an independent filmmaker, you’re always fighting and struggling with money—often you don’t see a penny until your film is actually released, and even then, it might be years before you actually get a check—if you ever do. It would take Les a decade or more before Les would start to break even on his best work, like Gap-Toothed Women or Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers. So when he had a chance, he’d take a work-for-hire project.

Even though they didn’t exactly work out for him.

They rarely worked out for him; they almost always ended badly. Les just could not relinquish control over the final product. That’s a challenge that you have to accept; if someone is paying you to film, then what you film isn’t yours—it’s theirs; they own the movie and they call the shots. Leon had every right to do what he did. The sad thing is that over the years I had asked Les if I could try to help pave things over with Leon, to help them reconcile, but he didn’t want me to. He didn’t even want me to talk about it with him. It was such a sore, painful subject for him, sadly for the rest of his life. He just thought no one would ever see his masterpiece. I was always much more optimistic about it; I felt that even though we probably would not patch things up while Les was alive, I was sure that it would happen after. That’s what Les wanted, too; his biggest dying wish was to make sure the film would be remastered. There wasn’t talk of it being released; he had given up on that. Considering the animosity he had for Leon, and the love and respect I had for Leon, I never gave up hope on patching things up.

There are several moments in the film that feel like Les is making very pointed and rather blunt swipes at Leon, most notably the end credit where Les quotes Jean-Luc Godard (“The day of the director is dead!”) underneath his name and the Eric Andersen session, where Leon gets a bit testy with Les. When you watch the argument with Eric and Leon, it makes Leon look testy, but when you get to the end of that, you realize that actually it’s not Leon that Anderson is upset with—it’s Les.

“The day of the director is dead” statement was most definitely a jab at Leon and Denny. Les wasn’t to be given director credit, and that really hurt his feelings. But when I went back and looked at the original contract, it did indeed state that Les was being hired as the director. He felt like he was wronged, and that is definitely is Les making an unflattering statement about being unhappy that he’d been denied what he felt was his all along. When I worked on the remastering, I decided to keep it exactly as he had it, because it’s part of the story, and that’s how it happened. Leon will now admit that yeah, Les deserved that credit. Considering the context of the era, and how Leon was successful in his music career, I thought of something that had never really been addressed before. I asked Leon if he’d had any aspirations of being a filmmaker, and it was something that in all these years had never been asked. He told me, “Well, you know, I worked on the first-ever music video for Bob Marley. I’d had a seven-camera shoot and I arranged for all of that and worked with the shooting.” It was a total surprise to hear that yes, Leon did have aspirations of being a filmmaker.   In the film there’s the scene of him directing the “Lady Madonna” sequence, and he’s straight up being a film director.

Leon, at the time in his life, was really into creating this world around him, surrounding himself really interesting and creative people—artists, writers, musicians, painters—and Les was a part of that world. He wanted to create a very creative microcosm, because he is such a multi-faceted, multi-talented man. In a way, Leon doesn’t like to call attention to his abilities. Leon is such a humble, bashful guy, that I really had to dig around to get him to admit he had filmmaker aspirations. He just wasn’t going to bring it up on his own. It’s endearing, and before I got to know him better and seeing how he collects art and folk art, I had no idea of his interests, because in many ways, he was just like Les! I think part of the reason Les and Leon got along so well—and maybe why they eventually fell out—was because they were so much alike in their philosophy and outlook and interests. They loved good music, having fun, and folk art—but most of all, they loved creating. If there’s anything sad about this whole affair, it’s that these two men might have gotten along well—might have even become best friends—if only they’d have put these damn issues aside. Perhaps, like a magnet, the like reflects like, but they’re still like. 

In the documentary portion of the DVD, you mention the last lifetime showing of Poem that Les had, and that you sent out feelers to Leon about it, because of your father’s rapidly declining health. Did the two ever reconcile?

Yeah, a little bit. When Leon responded I read the email to everyone in the family and they were there with Les, and he just couldn't believe it. He had never heard from Leon in 40 years. He had never spoken to him in all those years, and only heard from him once, and even then, it wasn’t Leon. He got a letter from Leon’s attorney threatening legal action if he showed the film, and that was in the late 1970s. Les claimed to have written him many letters over the years and that he reached out many times, but Leon never responded to him. One day he was going on about not hearing back from him, and I just point blank said, “Les, do you possibly think that maybe Leon was just so busy and he never actually received those letters?” He responded sheepishly that no, it had not occurred to him.  

When Les got that email, he was astonished. We all were. We all felt that there was an inkling of hope about the two of them getting together and finally working out this long-standing issue. Leon’s letter was very nice, and he wished Les the best. Now, he didn’t say anything about releasing Poem, but really, that wasn’t something any of us were thinking about. It was more important that the two were talking, even if it was a simple email. Les passed away before we were able to go further down that road, but it was a very nice, very fitting moment of making peace. 

When you got into the remastering process for the film, you wanted to keep to Les’ vision, but knowing the issues between him and Leon, were you prepared to make some deep cuts that Les might not have agreed with, such as the snake scene?

I think, on some level, I might have been dreading that, but when it came down to it, the bigger headache was always going to be licensing.  The “Lady Madonna” scene, Leon warned me, was never going to be cleared. That song was the biggest headache of all. The original version, it’s a really vulgar, crude, disgusting parody. I hated it; Les included it but Leon absolutely did not want it in there, and there was no way in hell it was going to be cleared. What we got of it, the brief snippet that you see, we were happy to get. But as for the greater issue you bring up, I told Leon I would try to make it what he wanted, but at the same time, as the curator of Les’ archives, I also felt I had a duty to try and preserve the film in as pristine and as true a manner as possible. Leon, he understood that—like I said earlier, he’d sort of realized that Les had made a good film on his own, even if it wasn’t what was conceptualized.  Leon was taking a hands-off approach, and though I was initially nervous when I sent him a copy of the film, it was so relieving to hear him say, “I don’t know how you did it but this is so much better than what I remembered,” and that was that. We had finally reached the point that Les never could. I changed a few things here and there based on the various cuts that he had created over the years, and not only was I happy, but Leon was happy, too.

If there’s anything missing from the film, it doesn’t feel like it; it flows quite wonderfully and feels quite seamless, even when the pieces don’t initially make sense until you reflect on the whole of the film.

Thank you—it was a lot of work, and it really does flow quite nicely, doesn’t it? When one gets obsessive over something like Les did over this film, you always sort of wonder what kind of mess you’re getting into when you dive into it. Poem was his baby, very much so, and what’s interesting to me is how well his edits played out.

In the original 1974 version of the film, it was fourteen minutes longer. The scenes that were taken out, they were great scenes—for 1974. A lot of it was hippie stuff, and like the glass eater and the snake, they really didn’t have anything to do with Les at all, but it was compelling and would have been funny back then; those scenes were timely. In the original cut, there was a guy who was completely out of his head--tripping on acid, stoned, drunk, mentally ill, or all of the combined—rambling on and on for four or five minutes about the state of consciousness and just making no sense. At the time, Les felt it was relevant, but as the years progressed, he cut it out, because outside of the times, it simply slowed down the pace. What I presented Leon with was as close to the final version of the film from 2011, and Leon loved it, and that was that. Les’ masterpiece is now available for the world to see, and I’m sure he would be thrilled with all the attention it is receiving.

As caretaker of his estate, what next do we have to look forward to from Les Blank’s archives?

Well, right now I’m in Seale, Alabama, filming a folk artist name Butch Anthony. I’m here shooting for a week to complete a film Les started in 1997, and he shot on it up until a year or two of his death. So we came here to do some follow-up and incidental shooting so that we can wrap it up.  Right now, the working title is The Anatomy of Butch Anthony. We’re pretty much getting ready to start the editing process, and we hope to have it ready for showing by the end of the year. As far as the Les Blank archives go, I think we’re pretty much done in terms of unreleased or incomplete material; I’m in charge of his creative estate, and we may have some things planned in terms of remastering and reissuing some of his older titles, not unlike what we did for Always For Pleasure, but that’s nowhere near consideration time right now, as Les had been working on that box set when he died. Personally, I’ve got my own pet project that I’ve been working on for about twenty years or so, and that’s a documentary on Burning Man. In fact, Les was a major fan of the festival; he shot there every year for fifteen or so years, and he really got into it. Even in his last years, he never missed a chance to get out and have a little fun. And that, really, was Les Blank in a nutshell. He believed that life was temporal, and that there was absolutely nothing after you die. “When you’re dead, you’re done for—long live the living” was his motto, so going out in the desert every year painted from head to toe, it was a sight to behold—and he loved every minute of it. Les and I are intertwined in a spiritual, familial, and creative way, and this Burning Man project is a result of that, and that’s why I’m really looking forward to getting that completed, because, really, this beautiful, complex, delicate, sensitive, visionary man left a great mark on this world, and I’m honored to have been a part of it. (www.criterion.com/films/28755-a-poem-is-a-naked-person)

 



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