A Poem Is A Naked Person

Studio: Criterion

Apr 14, 2016 Photography by The Criterion Collection Web Exclusive
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Les Blank’s film portrait of Leon Russell, A Poem Is A Naked Person, has long had a reputation of being one of the great unreleased rock documentaries. Recorded in the early 1970s, Blank worked on the film for two years, but it was shelved by Russell, who had hired Blank to shoot the film and was unhappy with the final product. Blank, who considered it to be one of his masterpieces, would work on the film and revisit it for the rest of his life, knowing that only a handful of people would see it, thanks to a peculiar loophole in the contract—it could only be shown with Blank in appearance, at non-profit theaters, and shown for free.  At the time, Leon Russell was at the pinnacle of his career, whilst Blank’s profile was on the rise, thanks in part to the well-received documentary, 1968s excellent The Blues Accordin’ To Lighting’ Hopkins. Russell and his manager Denny Cordell had seen the film and were impressed, so they hired Blank to film Russell in the studio, live, and on the road.

Here the seeds were sown that would keep the film unreleased. In retrospect, it’s easy to see where this arrangement could become problematic. Blank, a filmmaker, fell under the impression that he had been given the opportunity to make a movie. Russell and Cordell, however, simply saw Blank as the man running the camera and capturing images for a documentary that they would edit and produce themselves. Russell and Blank’s relationship would become contentious—Blank would be fired and rehired a few times during the film’s creation, due in no small part to Blank’s personality being altered by substance abuse, which caused him to cross the line. While those particular incidents weren’t shown in the film, one incident is quite telling. At a session for musician Eric Andersen, Blank had been rather hostile to Andersen, whom he had not met, initially trying to keep him out of his own session. This tension escalates further when an impatient Andersen tries to get Russell to work on his session, instead of having a chat with Blank. Russell scolds Andersen, though Andersen is right in his assessment of the situation.  Initially, Russell comes off badly, but the scene ends with him  praising Andersen’s songwriting abilities.

Les Blank cared deeply about capturing mood and feel in his work, and he does a masterful job of it here. The opening scene features scenes from a lake, the landscape, a dragonfly, an alligator, a snake, and an elderly couple, Lola & F.M. Watson, who were caretakers at Russell’s lakeside studio. We then see the environment around Russell’s studio and hometown of Tulsa—from marching bands to collapsing buildings to Native American folklore, all the while getting the occasional glimpse of Russell, either on stage, or in the studio. It really isn’t until halfway through A Poem Is A Naked Person that Russell actually becomes the focus of the film; until that point, we see him briefly in various stages, while accentuated with performances by Willie Nelson, a guest performance by George Jones, and the occasional brief chat with Russell.

This sideways view of Russell wasn’t necessarily done maliciously; as a man riding high on international fame, Russell simply wasn’t around Tulsa a lot of the time, and so Blank—who had moved to Tulsa and was working on editing two other films—would simply make excursions into the city and film what he happened upon, partially out of an interest in capturing the vibe of the atmosphere where Russell lived. In so doing, a good portion of the film is focused on artist Jim Franklin-an eccentric hippie painter/philosopher who is introduced capturing scorpions as he begins work painting a stunningly beautiful mural in Russell’s swimming pool. He later ruminates on various subjects. It’s his demonstration the trappings of fame and consumerism via a Boa eating a newly hatched chick that caused (and still does) Russell great unhappiness; while what Franklin says is absolutely true, it’s a disturbing, violent scene that feels out of place, and one that is theorized as a dig at Russell and the fleeting nature of success. It’s not for the faint of heart, even though the theory that Franklin offers is quite illuminating and thought-provoking. 

Russell’s major complaint was that he felt A Poem Is A Naked Person was more of a Les Blank film than a Leon Russell film, and he’s not wrong; it is a Les Blank film, and an excellent one at that. While one might not come away with much insight into the enigmatic Leon Russell, one cannot help but walk away from A Poem Is A Naked Person with anything but a greater appreciation of Les Blank’s masterful approach to filmmaking. It’s just a shame Blank didn’t live to see his masterpiece receive the kudos he (rightly) felt it deserved. (www.criterion.com/films/28755-a-poem-is-a-naked-person)

Author rating: 9/10

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