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 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.
★★★★★ 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.
★★★★½ review by kylepsmith on Letterboxd
I don't like Leon Russell's music and I don't think Les Blank did either; for this very reason this movie stands out in the "concert film" canon - which, by the way, is a a very boring genre: the consensus classic THE LAST WALTZ is fine enough but I always fall asleep during it; the runner-up STOP MAKING SENSE at least features a sense of style and a reasonable runtime.* Les Blank doesn't seem to like Leon Russell's music *or* Leon Russell the person very much, and Leon Russell clearly didn't like Les Blank *or* his film very much as he prevented this would-be career-making movie from being released until now, two years after Blank's passing.
I'd heard the mythos behind this film and tried to prime myself on Russell's classics to little avail. In the film Russell seems - in a very aware way - completely unauthentic. He has a sincere drawl, but his amalgam of blues, country, psychedelia, and gospel all comes distilled through his muted piano (unaided by Blank's primitive sound recording) and his gifted voice. Toward the end of the film, Blank starts cutting in scenes at an African-American church with a dynamite preacher and a crowd of dancing women. He weaves them in twice, I think, before giving them a solid bookend to one of Russell's performances, as if to provide us with two types of music: those by people who "make music," such as session-lifer Russell; and those that literally live with music - the subject of Blank's best films. He loved that area where art was part of life in a ho-hum way, just like eating - another Blank specialty - is a ho-hum act of life full of beauty. BURDEN OF DREAMS, Blank's best-known movie, works because Werner Herzog merges FITZCARRALDO with the immediate here-and-now of his existence in the Amazon. With A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON, it's as if Blank couldn't find the magic in Russell so he started looking elsewhere.
Sublime for its first half, Blank's ability to hold your attention with his non-narrative free-flowing room-searching whatsit starts to fade right around the time most of his best films end. What A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON does is slowly yank the rug out from under you with a monumentally edited intercutting of various recordings of songs, in the studio and onstage, occasionally with Blank shirtless (though this cameo holds no candle to the ***PERSON IN A CHICKEN SUIT*** present at a wedding, which Blank is enough of a comic to know is better left as an Easter egg detail) and almost always with film microphones floating around. It's like Blank was saddled with the biggest project he'd faced yet and felt pressed to show the strings that held it all together more than in his rambling docs about great blues musicians. In those films, he wandered the community around them and filmed boxing matches, shrimp boils, and sweaty concerts in wooden shacks. In this film, he shows conversations about "making it," "making a million bucks," spaced-out beautiful women, and drug-fueled hotel room freakout.
To be fair, those moments are presented without judgment: they're simply "happening" and Blank's unique voice is such that the hotel breakdance is presented calmly with the vibe of the room, as if everyone is silently agreeing that "oh, that Iggy Pop-bodied dude is defying gravity with unaided cartwheels, neat." But Les Blank finds a way: the pointed use of voiceover, the clumsy snake-eating-a-bird metaphor, but most of all the catfishing, the old folks, the periphery of Leon Russell's life. It's in this search for what produced this 30-year-old man who looks 48 - it's a thought I had while watching that is articulated in the movie - and the circumstances of his life. Les Blank didn't think Leon Russell was special, but he found a way to make a film about his life that was.
*when I first saw THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME, by my Favorite Band LED ZEPPELIN (capitalized because they're more important than most movies), I read so many reviews of it being overbloated, pretentious, whatever. This might be true, but that movie - concert footage or otherwise - stays with me more than anything from THE LAST WALTZ besides the Muddy Waters' single-take shot.
Similarly, MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY, the "concert film" for my LED ZEPPELIN replacement RADIOHEAD, also disappointed me with its cloud of ennui and anti-concert film stuff, i.e. zero performances. It's hard to remember how crazy it felt in the pre-YouTube days when people like me bought 7 TELEVISION COMMERCIALS just to watch the "Just" video shelled out $20 for MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY and were teased with the best band in the world presented as miserable tour-hating Sadnesses, because I didn't know yet that touring as part of a rock band must be so miserable. Yet that movie sticks with me more than most.
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