The subjects of Les Blank’s interest were as consistent as they were surprisingly diverse and specific: food, music, community and the rituals and revelries that not only make life enjoyable, but at times intoxicating. This was made clear by the near-comprehensive vision of his career made available in last year’s box set by Criterion. When Blank focused instead on personalities — rather than, say, Cajun music or the growing popularity of garlic — he did so through these activities.
So when we first see Southern rock musician Leon Russell perform for a packed theater in A Poem is a Naked Person, he’s introduced by the camera following a paper plate of barbecue as it reaches Russell’s piano. From the start, we’re in pure Blank territory. Neither biopic nor concert documentary, A Poem is a Naked Person portrays Russell’s music-making within a greater context of other Oklahoma-based social and cultural activities with which Russell himself has varying degrees of involvement, from fishing to balloon-flying to mural-painting to even glass-eating. Blank thus positions the film’s supposedly central subject within a richly captured environment, never bothering to make the connections therein more than thematic or impressionistic. Russell is neither celebrity nor rock star nor protagonist here, but simply one element in a greater field of play within regional Americana. And this is A Poem is a Naked Person’s accomplishment: composing a symphonic harmony of seemingly dissociated activities and subjects into one comprehensive, elegantly organized and, yes, even poetic whole.
A Poem is a Naked Person has a difficult history. Shot between 1972 and 1974 and largely financed by Russell himself, the film was shelved after completion allegedly due to Russell’s dissatisfaction with Blank’s finished product, which was only seen by a few privileged eyes. (Perhaps the film’s lack of central focus on Russell himself had something to do with this.) However, Russell and Harrod Blank (son of the late documentarian) set aside enough differences in order to collaborate on releasing the film, premiering it at this year’s South by Southwest music and film festival after arranging with Janus Films and Criterion for a theatrical and disc release. Forty-one years after completion, A Poem is a Naked Person is finally seeing the light of day as a legitimate commercial release.
This controversial history shouldn’t suggest that Russell is entirely absent in his own film. In addition to Blank’s energetic concert footage, A Poem is a Naked Person gives substantial focus to Russell’s studio work, including his collaboration with other musicians, his composing of takes and the types of seemingly candid and authentic conversations that documentary work of this era is known for. Any passing familiarity with Leon Russell will certainly grow into an inspired interest in his talent by the end of these 90 breezy, free-flowing minutes.
But when so many other rock musicians during the ’60s and ’70s — including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Band and every festival under the sun — were given iconic rock documentaries that served as both intimate portraits and powerful vessels for myth-making, it’s clear why Russell would have been disappointed with Blank’s approach to the material. Forgoing a biopic, concert film or even a conventional character study, A Poem is a Naked Person places everyday Oklahomans as subjects equivalent to the film’s ostensible central focus. While Blank’s counterintuitive approach risks not making A Poem is a Naked Person “about” Russell himself, it allows the film to accomplish something that few of its rock-star-worshipping nonfiction contemporaries could: it portrays a large swath of people who all contribute to the culture from which Russell’s music is made. In Blank’s eyes, that some of these subjects are famous while others are not has zero to do with what makes them compelling and deserving of the lens.
At one point, a concertgoer tells Blank’s camera, “I’m here to enjoy people — and also Leon Russell.” It’s within this exact spirit that Blank molds the delightful A Poem is a Naked Person.