Film Review – A Poem is a Naked Person
A Poem is a Naked Person
The music of Leon Russell is hard to simply categorize. Falling somewhere between country, bluegrass, blues, gospel and hillbilly ho-down, Russell blends hippy esthetics with country workmanship. It’s fitting then that a documentary about Russell, his music and the recording studio he once owned and operated in Grand Lake, Oklahoma would be made by documentarian Les Blank. Blank’s films often fascinated themselves with the idiosyncrasies associated with and surrounding a particular topic. Co-financed by Russell and his at-the-time business partner Denny Cordell, they hired Blank to follow them around for two years collecting footage. What Blank made is less a standard rock ‘n roll documentary and more of a fixation on the world that surrounded Russell and his Shelter Records recording studio in 1972 through 1974.
Not too far into the documentary, musician, songwriter George Jones takes the stage at a concert that Russell just played. As Jones croons out a song we cut to footage of artist Jim Franklin, who stayed at Russell’s recording studio for a time, as he walks around the bottom of an empty pool picking up scorpions that are littered about and talks in voice-over about how walls are meant to be painted on and children who paint on walls know what’s up. Franklin then paints an octopus on the bottom of the empty pool. Blanks’ fractured narrative doesn’t tell us Franklin lived at Russell’s studio, but the purpose of the presentation isn’t to inform, it’s to provoke thought.
Intended for release in 1974, A Poem is a Naked Person hasn’t had an official release until now. Previously screenings were only done in the presence of Blank himself. Cited as creative differences, Russell told Billboard magazine in 2011 that he didn’t care for the movie and after seeing it in 1974 never intended to release it. Of course with a reception like that and the resulting movie that Blanks produced, a cult-like urban legend has built itself up surrounding the movie over the years. Although a traditional documentary structure is absent, what Blanks created is a fascinating and sometimes repulsive look at the world and philosophies that Russell surrounded himself with.
Russell built his recording studio in his hometown out of an old church and surrounded it with housing structures so the musicians and other artists and friends could live there and create a community with the means to create their art. Blank spends a lot of his time filming Russell’s friends as they pontificate about how life works while doing whatever it is they do. There’s a punk-rock esthetic to Blank’s editing and camera, cutting between music and the peripheral life that accompanied it. Not always exciting, there are times though when Blank shows us visceral images seemingly unrelated to Russell and music, as if Blanks’ mind suddenly diverges to a momentary thought he was afraid to let pass.
The result is a jumbled bag of cinema verite and commentary on the human condition. What it is not, is an expose on Rusell. Very little information is revealed on Russell. More of an expressive documentary, Blank chooses to use Russell’s music and the community he nurtured as a means for meditating on the eccentricities of humanity that arise in the face of humanity’s self-destructive nature. Of course, music is one of them. Russell, like Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back (1967), seems at home in his surroundings but uncomfortable when he has to put his existence into context. Blank leaves in plenty of footage of Russell attempting to control his surroundings in regards to making a movie. Russell even is heard asking for a slate for the camera when inspiration strikes and a moment of music has to be recorded. Later in the doc, Russell has to explain why a film crew wouldn’t let a fellow musician just barge into the studio as the film crew was recording, because the musician’s feelings were hurt. It’s reminiscent of the feud between Dylan and Donovan in Don’t Look Back, and an obvious search for candidacy when it comes to Russell’s interactions with others.
While never boring, Blank ultimately struggles at finding a through line that pulls the whole thing together into something more profound as a whole, instead of the individual moments that are dispersed throughout. It should be considered though that this was Blank’s first feature length documentary that paved the way for many more, including the excellent Gap-Toothed Women (1987). Even if it falters in an over-all package, a Les Blank documentary is always a unique experience.