December 6, 2016
On November 14th Leon Russell passed away at the age of 74, after a remarkable career in music. He started as a sought-after studio session ace, working on everything from the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra to the “Monster Mash.” Drawn to roots music of all kinds, when he started his rock band it played an ecstatic blend of country-blues-R&B (known as the “Tulsa Sound”) that became one of the top touring acts of the 1970s. In 1972 Les Blank started filming a documentary, A Poem is a Naked Person, that would follow one of Russell’s tours as well as the recording process of what would become the album Hank Wilson’s Back. It was shot over two years, and has the vibrancy and surprise of Blank’s improvisatory style. He captures anything, whether it’s an intense studio session or a random girl singing a Three Dog Night tune before a wedding. A Poem Was a Naked Person was not a traditional concert doc, so due to creative differences and contractual snags, it did not see the light of the projector for decades. But it was finally released by Janus Films in 2015, and is now available to stream on FilmStruck.
““It looks more like a travelogue than a Leon movie”, is what Leon Russell told Rolling Stone’s Eric Hynes in 2015, right before A Poem is a Naked Person was released into theaters. It was the reason he refused to sign off on its release in the first place. Russell first became a star after he appeared in the concert film of Joe Cocker’s tour, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, on which Russell arranged Cocker’s backing band of the same name. With his mane of gray hair and top hat, and the moniker “The Master of Space and Time,” he cut quite a counterculture figure, and the Poem was expected to be another extension of that. Instead he got a film that pauses to take in the world around him.
In 1979 Les Blank described his approach to filming people: “I’ve seen a lot of cameramen go in and treat the subjects like so many guinea pigs. I think the people pick up on my very protective feelings toward them, and they aren’t self-conscious about what they do or say, and they try to show the inner light about themselves that I find so attractive.” His films contain exuberant portraits of musicians, cooks, artists and other proponents of the good life, including blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins (The Blues According To… ), guitarist Mance Lipscomb (A Well Spent Life ), and filmmaker Werner Herzog (Burden of Dreams ), all of which are available on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck. He finds the inner light in each, just by letting them alone. He focuses so much on other distractions – friends, family, picnic tables, the sky – that people get comfortable and open up. He often lived with them for weeks before and during filming.
That intimacy did not exist between Blank and Russell. Russell told Hynes, “He was good at what he did…he was just kind of a jerk sometimes. But I guess I was kind of a jerk too.” That distance might be the secret gift of the film, as it gives Blank even freer reign to veer from his subject. Neither wanted to be near the other, so Blank decided to go off and explore. So we get gracious details like two of Russell’s Oklahoma neighbors, an old couple enjoying the celebrity in their midst. The woman is enamored with Russell’s long hair, and encourages her husband to keep it growing. The love just beams out of them. Then there are long segments of artist Jim Mitchell, one painting Russell’s pool floor into a kaleidoscopic aquarium of octopi, and another in which he feeds a chick to his pet snake, an image which Blank returns to throughout the film and seems to shapeshift meanings – first as a blunt image of capitalism, and by the end, as Kent Jones notes in his Criterion essay, “about the snake as a model consumer, eating only when it’s famished, and about consumption itself as a basic fact of human existence.”
Leon Russell seems exhausted throughout, coasting on the high of his ride to fame, one which he would retreat from in the final decades of his life. He is something of a structuring absence in the movie, the reason the film exists but missing for large stretches, or at least a recessive presence, listening attentively in a corner. The musical highlight for me is a performance by George Jones. Jones stops by the recording studio drinking a Budweiser and smoking a cigarette, and casually sings a gorgeously weary version of “Take Me.” This is contrasted with the nervous, enigmatic, and effortful Russell, a reluctant showman and awkward carnival barker. The top hat became his trademark, and would hang on a hook above the stage until the close of one of the shows. The atmosphere feels like that of a revival tent, with Blank fixing his camera on fans dancing with ecstatic intensity, giving themselves over to the music.
It’s understandable why Russell was disappointed with the film – he phrased it as, “I got into the movie and wanted to be like James Dean and I ended up being like Jimmy Dean.” Thankfully he was able to look back on it with humor, and allow Les Blank’s son Harrod to shepherd A Poem is a Naked Person back into the world. For in the end it is not a film about Leon Russell, but about the power and exhaustion of creating, whether it’s onstage in front of thousands, or in front of a camera for an audience of one.