By Gregory Crofton
This movie is more about Les Blank and his eye behind the camera than it is about Leon Russell, a long-haired, Kool cigarette-smoking, Rock ‘n’ Soul piano man from Oklahoma.
Blank, a highly regarded documentary filmmaker (BURDEN OF DREAMS) with more than 40 films to his credit, thought A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON to be his masterpiece. He didn’t live to see its release because Russell, who hired Blank to make the film, wouldn’t sign off on it. Apparently it didn’t turn out the way Russell had expected.
The documentary splits its time between Russell’s live concert and studio performances – many of which took place at his recording compound in Tulsa between 1972 and 1974 – with scenes of more ordinary, everyday people living in and around Tulsa. But moments in the film where Blank goes looking for answers about the meaning of life are the ones that resonate.
Russell started his career as a session musician in Los Angeles, graduating to songwriting and producing before launching a solo career. The musicians who came to visit in Tulsa are big deals like Willie Nelson, George Jones and Bob Dylan. Dylan’s not in the film because he wouldn’t give Blank permission to shoot him, but Jones sings “Take Me,” and Nelson sings “Good-Hearted Woman” on camera.
Blank finds the people of Tulsa at local events — a tractor pull, the demolition of a beloved building, high-speed lake boat racing, and the raucous spiritual life inside an African-American church. It was a different time, a time when you could play frisbee in an auditorium before a rock show.
It took Blank’s death in 2013, and his son Harrod’s determination to work with Russell, to accomplish the release of the documentary last month. Janus Films, the theatrical arm of The Criterion Collection, is distributing the movie. Its run at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville is coming to a close, but A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON can be seen at a handful of theaters around the country. Look for it because it is a masterpiece.
For more information about A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON, like how the film’s title was taken from the liner notes of Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home,” visit Janus Films.