A Poem is a Naked Person

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.

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  • ★★★★★ review by Scumbalina on Letterboxd

    I don't know much about Leon Russell. When I was younger I would confuse him with Leon Redbone. When I eventually became a fan of Redbone, I'd often encounter one of Russell's records and get excited before realizing he was the wrong Leon. I didn't choose "A Poem is a Naked Person" because I cared about the career of Leon Russell, I picked it because I'm trying to, pardon me - fill in the blanks - in Les Blank's filmography. The guy couldn't make a bad documentary if he tried. If he thought Leon Russell was a good subject for a documentary, I trust him fully.

    I was prepared to walk away a fan. I thought I'd learn all of these cool things and hear music I hadn't previously been exposed to. As I listened to Leon's rambling and watched him on stage engaging with the audience, it dawned on me , "Leon Russell is kind of a douche bag". He would prattle on and on about his philosophies which are oversimplified and judgmental of people who are not rich rock stars. He has a way of gently talking down to everyone. The ego this guy is dragging around must weight a ton.



    I can now say for certain that I don't like Leon Russell's music, it's a kind of blues-rock that sends me running. But none of this affected my opinion of the documentary itself. I was aware that it's release was delayed by decades. I'm sure the conflicts caught on the tape and the fact that it's not a flattering portrait of Leon Russell must have played some part in that. In 2011 Russell was quoted saying he didn't like the film and didn't plan on releasing it. "Didn't like the film"?? It's a brilliant portrait thanks to Les Blank. What he doesn't like is his own embarrassing behavior. The camera doesn't lie. Mind you, it's all mostly subtext. I wouldn't go in expecting fireworks. But you can tell this guy thinks he's God's gift, he wears it like hairspray in his perfectly coiffed hair.

    The three most interesting subjects in the film are the old rural married couple in the beginning and artist Jim Franklin who is mostly silent but always painting. I wish Les Blank had made a documentary about Leon Redbone.

    **Edit**To Leon Russell's credit, that last song was fire.

  • ★★★½ review by Bobby Analog on Letterboxd

    My dad bought vinyl all throughout the 70s. He was a ramp rat for Western Airlines, and every paycheck he would buy one record based on the artwork. By the time I was a kid in the 90s, he had amassed quite a collection. Troves and bins. Boxes and crates. One of the jackets was Carney by Leon Russell. Caked in haphazardly applied makeup, hair bedraggled, eyes deeply set. On the cover he looked intensely confident and, above all else, tired. I remember hearing the odd incantations of “Tight Rope,” maybe one of the strangest singles I had heard to that point in my young life. 

    Years later I would revisit Leon. On my laptop in Orange County hotel rooms, HBO on mute. Sometimes on my iPod. His music would come and go, in and out of my life as it pleased.

    Here, he is a perfect maelstrom of philosophical abandon and deep, theatrical twang. Les Blank shoots the film fearlessly, and I am convinced that no director understood people better than him. 

    A Poem Is A Naked Person is imperfect and beautiful and strange. Sometimes contentious. Everything Leon and Les were.

  • ★★★★★ 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.

  • ★★★½ review by Matty Stanfield on Letterboxd

    Les Blank's "lost" documentary which follows Leon Russell for about two years, 1972 to 1974, has finally found its way out to audiences.

    Loose in construction and without any real sort of focus, this experimental attempt to capture two years in the life of an emerging power in the world of rock, R&B and country quickly evolves into an unguided glimpse into a very specific time in some very specific places. Interestingly, those times and places are seldom named.

    Leon Russell sits firmly in the center of what often threatens to derail into a sort of lost stupor of 1970's Americana and eccentric artistry. The surprising thing is that "A Poem is a Naked Person" never goes off the rails. It is a constantly turbulent ride, but it has a great deal to show and say.

    The music is exceptional, the conversations may not always be of any particular interest but they forge into an interesting state of mind that could have only resulted in the mid 1970's at the intersection of Rock and Country musicians attempt to form harmony.

    For fans of Russell and this era of rock music, this film is a fun and bumpy ride. For those interested in the 1970's American ideology it is an even greater treat.

    Confusing, strange, comical and strangely interesting -- Les Blank's film most likely would have failed if it had managed to be released at the time it was completed. But some 40 years later, "A Poem is a Naked Person" has aged into an introspective film that constantly offers surprises.

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