Les Blank’s long unseen Leon Russell doc premieres in L.A. this week

By on July 6, 2015

Virtually unseen for more than 40 years, A Poem is a Naked Person, Les Blank’s portrait of Leon Russell, receives a formal Los Angeles premiere on July 8 with a screening at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel; a week of showings at Cinefamily, under the auspices of Allison and Tiffany Anders’ Don’t Knock the Rock Festival, commences on July 10.

The reason for the picture’s long suppression is simple: Russell and his Shelter Records partner Denny Cordell commissioned Blank to make a promotional movie, and he gave them an art film, and not a flattering one at that. Therein lies a very interesting rub.

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Some slightly convoluted back story is necessary. By 1972, when Blank was hired to create his portrait of the musician, guitarist-keyboardist-songwriter Russell had risen to a position of commercial eminence after years as one of L.A.’s top studio guns. Graduating from work in the house band of the weekly TV rock showcase “Shindig!” and record dates with such diverse clients as Phil Spector, the Byrds, and Herb Alpert, the Tulsa-born musician moved into the spotlight as musical director for Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett’s stomping R&B- and gospel-infused group and Joe Cocker’s huge, circus-like Mad Dogs & Englishmen unit.

Dubbed “The Master of Time and Space,” Russell began a fruitful label partnership with British producer Cordell with the inauguration of Shelter in 1970, a year before a high-profile appearance in the house band at George Harrison’s Concert For Bangla Desh. He bumped into the U.S. top 20 with his second solo album in 1971, but the 1972 LP Carney soared to No. 2 and spawned the No. 11 single “Tight Rope,” which was animated by Russell’s rolling keyboard work and rough yet affecting singing. The three-LP concert collection Leon Live would reach the top 10 and cement his position as a solo star in 1973.

Russell and Cordell doubtlessly envisioned a conventional feature surveying the musician’s stage show and sessions for a forthcoming country album when, on the recommendation of the American Film Institute, they commissioned Blank. By then active in Northern California for a dozen years, the director had made his rep with earthy short features about a pair of Texas musicians, bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins (The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1968) and songster Mance Lipscomb (A Well Spent Life, 1971).

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For nearly two years, Blank and his collaborator Maureen Gosling set up shop at Russell’s home and studio complex on a lake outside Tulsa, where they filmed the performer at work and play, and also cut their footage of Louisiana zydeco musicians Clifton Chenier and Boisec Ardoin into the pungent short films Hot Pepper and Dry Wood. The filmmakers humped their gear to gigs in Anaheim, New Orleans, and Austin, and to studio rehearsals at Bradley’s Barn in Nashville for the album Hank Wilson’s Back, the sincere and soulful 1973 country project that bewildered his core fans, essentially marking the end of Russell’s tenure as a top-flight rock attraction.

After an abortive attempt to screen A Poem is a Naked Person at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival – the print wasn’t ready – Russell and Cordell basically put the feature on semi-permanent ice, allowing it to be screened only by permission, with Blank in attendance. It remained an elusive commodity until the director’s death in 2013. At the urging of Blank’s son Harrod, Russell reconsidered the matter of its availability; a screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival prefaced a national theatrical release, and a DVD from the Criterion Collection, distributor Janus Films’ home video line, is anticipated.

Russell has long been mum about his reasons for keeping the picture out of circulation; queried in recent interviews, he has glibly replied, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t remember.” But it seems obvious that the producers’ intentions and the filmmakers’ execution were widely divergent. If Russell and Cordell thought they were going to get a puffy documentary that would push their product, they were sorely disappointed.

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A Poem is a Naked Person bears a striking resemblance, in style if not entirely in content, to a pair of quite radical contemporaneous films.

The most obvious analog is Cocksucker Blues, Swiss-born photographer and indie filmmaker Robert Frank’s notorious backstage look at the Rolling Stones’ 1972 U.S. tour; a jumpy saturnalia of sexual escapades, heroin abuse, and hotel-room boredom, with occasional concert footage, it scandalized the band, who have enforced restrictions similar to those imposed on Blank’s movie upon its exhibition.

Photographer William Eggleston’s long-gestating Stranded in Canton, which features pianist Jim Dickinson and musician/bank robber Jerry McGill among its cast of Memphis and New Orleans weirdoes and eccentrics, was shot on portable video equipment ca. 1973 and finally cut into something resembling finished form by Bluff City writer-documentarian Robert Gordon in 2005. It’s an incandescent rebel depiction of life on the distant fringes of art and music.

Frank’s and Eggleston’s highly personalized, jaggedly edited, impressionistic features, brimming with often appalling extra-musical incident, don’t fit the description of what we’ve come to call “music documentaries,” and neither do Blank’s pictures. The best-known films the director made before his encounter with Russell, though they boast musicians (Hopkins and Lipscomb) as their central figures, likewise operate well beyond the parameters of conventional music docs.

Though there is a good deal of music-making and ass-shaking in them, they are at heart about the communities in which the music was made, with their indigenous landscapes, customs, cuisines, and spiritual concerns. An observer of folklife at heart, Blank was an unlikely, even incongruous, candidate to make a movie about a rock star – essentially, an industrial film for music consumers.

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Like the subjects of Blank’s earlier films, Russell is witnessed at home a good deal, and the director slathers his film with super-saturated images of local color shot in and around the musician’s Oklahoma base – a pow-wow of the Tulsa Indian Club, a tractor pull, a holiday parade, a literal wild-goose chase, the implosion demolition of Tulsa’s ancient (and perfectly named) Bliss Hotel.

But Russell – prematurely gray, long-haired and bearded, always bearing a glazed, slightly stoned mien — appears before us as a man without a country, almost an alien, dislocated from his roots, ferried to his far-flung gigs in long limousines as black as hearses.

As a protagonist, Russell most resembles the central figure in a later Blank production, 1982’s Burden of Dreams. That unsettling feature follows the chaotic production of German director Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. The reckless and megalomaniacal filmmaker is seen slowly coming apart as, cut off entirely from civilization, he single-mindedly pursues his quixotic and extremely hazardous project, which entails the climactic hauling of a 20-ton boat up a steep incline; by the film’s end, Herzog appears as mad as the lunatic hero of his saga, who longs to build an opera house for Enrico Caruso in the middle of the jungle.

Though Russell is never depicted in extremis, as Herzog is, Blank implies that, unlike the Southern musicians the director depicts so affectionately and respectfully, the Oklahoman is like Herzog also a man who has drifted too far from his native shore.

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Music plainly is what brings Russell alive; it is at the heart of A Poem is a Naked Person, and it is often splendid, a saving grace. There are lovely cameos by George Jones (playing “Take Me” solo in Russell’s home studio) and Willie Nelson (essaying “Good Hearted Woman” at a gig in Austin, and accompanying fiddler “Sweet” Mary Egan on “Orange Blossom Special”). Several truncated yet forceful performances by Russell’s road band – augmented by a gospel-styled quartet, Blackgrass, led by Rev. Patrick Henderson – are on view.

In one simple yet eloquent sequence, Russell’s deeply felt cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” plays under footage of clouds drifting across the face of the moon, as they do in Williams’ lyrics; it’s obvious, but nonetheless affecting.

One of the bleaker streaks in the film can be found in some of the sequences shot during the sessions for Hank Wilson’s Back in Nashville. These scenes are not totally bereft of a certain joy: Russell takes obvious delight in the expertise of his A-Team accompanists. One delicious scene finds him in an awed duet with Charlie McCoy, a secret hero of Bob Dylan’s Nashville-based albums from Blonde On Blonde to Self Portrait; the bespectacled McCoy looks like an accountant on his way to a tee time, and he plays and sings his ass off.

But some of the other Music City studio gunslingers’ envy of and contempt for their contractor – like themselves a session guy, but one who has hit the jackpot – is scarcely concealed. Hotshot pianist David Briggs – whose obscene rendition of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” was expurgated in later prints of the film at Russell’s insistence – says at one juncture, in a blatant dig at his session boss, “I’m the guy they call when you can’t do your own fucking piano work.”

There is also an ugly confrontation in the Nashville studio between folk singer-songwriter Eric Andersen, who was apparently barred from entering the facility for his own session by Russell’s security staff. Russell belittles and insults Andersen with an arrogant rocker’s noblesse oblige, drily telling him, “You write some very beautiful goddamn songs,” which prompts the reply, “You’re jiving.”

For his part, Anderson voices skepticism about the legitimacy of Russell’s onstage thunder: “I couldn’t tell if you’re a revivalist man, trying to put something over, where it was coming from.” You find yourself asking if Blank may not harbor the same doubt.

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Blank ladles further darkness, grotesquerie, and bile over the proceedings throughout. Using non-linear, densely layering techniques pioneered in the ‘60s by French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard – whose ironic quote, “The day of the director is dead,” is seen on the film’s concluding title card, below Blank’s credit – the filmmaker atomizes the action, or comments on it, using a vocabulary of startling jump cuts, head-spinning juxtapositions, and dialog rendered as on-screen legends (“GET THOSE GOD DAMN CAMERAS OFF US”).

Thus, in one extraordinary sequence, footage of a wasted concertgoer being ejected from one of Russell’s gigs is intercut with shocking shots of a boa constrictor killing and devouring a baby chick. (The snake is the “pet” of artist Jim Franklin, who is seen elsewhere adorning the bottom of Russell’s swimming pool, after coolly collecting scorpions off its walls.) In another scene, a snippet of fiddler Johnny Gimble improvising a lively solo in the studio is abruptly interrupted by the screaming freakout of a bare-chested young man on a very bad acid trip in an unidentified hotel room.

Blank seems to imply that for all the tambourine shaking and Chautauqua-tent fervor of his sound, Russell makes music that only mimes the spiritual core of its sources. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a ragged jump cut from minister-musician Henderson playing at a Pentecostal church service to his group Blackgrass rocking the praise at one of Russell’s shows. The first performance, Blank suggests, is about true religion of the most devout order – the real thing, as it were — while the second is no more than entertainment.

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

In the end, Blank says without a flinch, this music is about the dollars. At one point he trains his camera on a teenage hitchhiker outside one of Russell’s shows; with a guitar slung on his back and a cardboard sign reading, “Oklahoma City” in his hand, the deluded kid says, “I wanna make it in Hollywood like Leon does – make a million dollars playin’ gee-tah.” The most damning exchange in the entire picture comes when an acquaintance poses a question to Russell after his performance at a friend’s wedding. Russell repeats the question – “If I didn’t get paid for singing, wouldn’t I sing?” – and leaves it hanging in the air, unanswered.

One can easily understand why Russell and Cordell were mortified, even horrified, by Blank’s film and sat on it for four decades. A Poem is a Naked Person used the language of cinema to subvert the film’s intended purpose as a self-glorifying sales tool. Instead, it ended up being a probing and dialectical work that used Russell’s music much as Godard himself employed the Rolling Stones’ music (far less effectively or coherently) in his Sympathy For the Devil.

As it often has over the course of time, great art – and Blank’s movie definitely qualifies as such – operates at cross-purposes to a patron’s wishes.

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About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).