A Poem is a Naked Person
Directed by Les Blank
Les Blank's first feature-length documentary captures music and other events at Leon Russell's Oklahoma recording studio during a three-year period (1972-1974).
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★★★★½ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
A free-associative trip through the golden years of rhythm and blues, Les Blank’s long-lost Leon Russell doc unfolds like a southern-fried Almost Famous that’s been stitched together from all of the little observations that a scripted film would leave out. Shot between 1972 and 1974 and buried for more than four decades after Russell balked at the finished product, A Poem Is a Naked Person has been lovingly remastered by the late filmmaker’s son (after he connected with Russell on Facebook). The movie hasn’t just been worth the wait, it’s been transformed by it: In the ’70s, this would’ve been an unusually intimate tour portrait. Now, it’s a newly unearthed time capsule, the remarkable clarity of Blank’s portrait compounded by the distance from which we’re looking at it.
★★★★★ review by Jon M. on Letterboxd
As I continued to collect my thoughts on this beautiful, brilliant film, I can sum it up briefly as such:
Les Blank's approach to documentary - and, let's be honest, cinema in general - is a delight. He's one of the most life-affirming directors in history. A Poem is a Naked Person is a great tribute to life, death, and most of all, the pleasures of the human experience. Each moment is special and it's a reminder of just how great it is to be alive. In describing her family, one of this film's subjects quips, "We're just pleasure-seekers." But, in indulging in Blank's films, so are we. And what a pleasure they are.
★★★★ review by Jordan Smith on Letterboxd
"What you can do, I mean the way they finish houses now, they paint 'em white, they paint 'em blank colors, and they're excellent surfaces to paint on. And if they don't like it, they can always paint over 'em, but people are afraid to disturb that surface."
Yeah. My first Les Blank, so my only point of reference is Errol Morris' Vernon, Florida. Of the movies of his I've seen, it's easily the one less interested in a through-line, opting instead for the ebbs and flows of a particular lifestyle. Where Morris' doc ping-pongs between the folksy, laconic raconteurs of a rural white community, Blank dunks us in a revolving door of musicians, fans, and regular folks who have nothing in common but a zest for life. It'd be reductive to say that Morris is strictly attracted to talking heads but Blank's freewheeling style allows for more spontaneity. Let's spend time in a black church, sure. Let's follow a bird for a minute or two while Leon Russell effortlessly waxes philosophical on a litany of questions tossed at him. I actually think people like myself detract from what unconsciously liberal movies like this accomplish by explicitly addressing the cultural and racial divides subtly erased throughout. Leon Russell's excellent music is equally informed by southern rock, honky-tonk, black gospel, soul, and folk. His first wife was black, his audience is diverse, and he'd most likely laugh anyone out of the building if they were to harp on those things. The South has long been a punching bag for racism but that's just as harmful a generalization as any. There's a great song on the Drive-By Truckers' third album called "The Three Great Alabama Icons" in which the narrator comes to terms with his Southern upbringing. He used to ridicule the jocks in his high school parking lot blaring Lynyrd Skynyrd but eventually becomes aware of the "duality of the Southern thing". That there's more than meets the eye to seemingly basic stuff like Lynyrd Skynyrd. This is why I loved Everybody Wants Some!! because even if those dudes have a limited worldview, it's not one born out of skepticism, anger, or fear. It's just they're lives. They're meathead baseball bros who happen to like partying and chasing girls. I genuinely don't know how to address those who find Linklater's film misogynistic, but I digress. When my dad's estranged father with whom he had a beyond contentious relationship passed away a few years ago, he left behind a sizable record collection. My dad let me cherry-pick from it and I ran across a funky looking record with the name Leon Russell emblazoned across it and a dude's disembodied head staring at me from a sea of tall grass. My dad told me he was one of his favorites and that his dad did technical stuff for a venue in their town and saw Leon play several times. So I texted my dad while watching this and he immediately remarked on how cool he thought it was that Russell performed with black singers and musicians, and that he collaborated with a variety of musicians like Willie Nelson and Elton John. Then I told him that he might like Sturgill Simpson, a singer whose outlaw country vibe is a throwback to when these musicians could fool around with different genres and styles. So the next time my dad (born and raised all over Georgia, still sports an accent) puts on a stereotypical "black voice" when we roll through the White Castle drive-thru, I'll try not to sigh, or scold him, or roll my eyes. I'll know that he is simply trying to be friendly, trying to connect.
★★★★ review by Nick on Letterboxd
Blank is entranced by the quaint and colorful beauty of his surroundings, and allows his camera to loosely follow behind him as his attention diverts from audience member to town citizen, from lake to mural, from landmark to fallen landmark, from life to death. the importance of each throwaway, likely drug-influenced thought feels twice as amplified: a true time capsule, in that everything recorded is clearly a product of the moment; a nostalgic reminder of the merits of existing as freely as its subjects do, with a crushing cognizance of what those merits mean in the long term.
★★★½ review by Jacob Gehman on Letterboxd
I watch things on a whim most of the time. Rhyme and reason go right out the window. Rhyme or reason would dictate I'd watch something completely different while doing my laundry, but for better or worse (and probably better), whim controls everything. I saw A Poem is a Naked Person sitting in front of me, so I watched A Poem is a Naked Person, even though I know nothing about Leon Russell (the musician this film is about) or Les Blank (the man who made the film).
Both names are familiar, of course. I spent too much time as a teen/20-something perusing CD racks at record stores that no longer exist. Leon Russell was a name on the spine of at least a handful of them. Likewise, my on-going interest in the Criterion collection means my eyes have drifted over Les Blank's name quite a bit. Dude directed a lot of documentaries.
A Poem is a Naked Person was filmed between 1972 and 1974. Despite some private viewings, it never got an actual release until Criterion released it this year. It was never a "lost" film, per se, but the raw difficulty in obtaining the proper music clearances made it unlikely to ever see the light of day. But they succeeded, and here we are.
Even though I've never watched a Les Blank film before, the few things I've read had prepared me for what a Les Blank film might look like. Nothing took me by surprise, really. It's less a documentary than it is an actual document: a work of art crafted around the gigantic personality of Leon Russell, but as with any good work of art, it cannot be contained by its muse. Thus, in addition to Russell, we see Les Blank's eye get caught up in all sorts filming--stuff that has nothing (or at most a tenuous link) to Russell or his band members.
--Speed boats racing.
--Clouds in the sky.
We also see:
--Backup singers singing and swaying.
--Piano key pressing.
--and et cetera.
Most with a decidedly Leon Russell focus.
We also see:
--Hotel room flying.
--and et cetera.
Which is to say, A Poem is a Naked Person marks the early-to-mid 70s culture in a wide, eccentric way, even as much of the film's focus throbs to the beat of Leon Russell's brand of americana/folk/gospel/kind of rock music.
It's interesting on its own terms as Blank's camera flickers here, then here, then here. In fact, it may be disappointing for people interested in A Poem is a Naked Person from a mostly Leon Russell standpoint because, even as Russell is arguably the subject, he's far from the focus.
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