‘A Poem is a Naked Person’
Director: Les Blank
5 (out of 5) Globes
In 1972, the year the late, great Les Blank began shooting a documentary on him, outlaw country scalawag Leon Russell was a top concert draw whose latest tour bagged $3 million. Two years of filming later, Blank had his movie but not one Russell wanted. Seeing “A Poem is a Naked Person” — finally legally releasable after 40-some years — it’s easy to its star’s objections as being more than mere hubris. Russell, a newly minted music god, had received a shapeless, experimental non-narrative in which he was only technically the star. He was only in about half the movie, probably less, reduced to just the most frequently seen lovable freak milling about a remote Oklahoma cul-de-sac, living, like all Blank heroes, and Blank himself, an alternative lifestyle outside the cookie cutter norm.
Russell consigned “Poem” to the annals of contraband cinema, along with the notorious Rolling Stones tour chronicle “C—sucker Blues.” But Blank’s film is too sweet to be treated like illegal tender. (Naturally, the seeds for the film’s belated release were planted over a Facebook exchange.) Like all of Blank’s films, it’s a celebration of joy — a loose collection of sights and sounds that made Blank happy and that he was fortunate to be present to film. It’s only his first of two feature length works, including “Burden of Dreams,” which found him capturing the unmaking and re-making of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo.” Otherwise Blank’s cinema is one of success, sometimes against adversity: deep hangs with legends keeping on (“The Gospel Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins”), Cajun revelers (“Spend It All”), Mardi Gras revelers (“Always for Pleasure”) and those most wondrous folks, garlic-lovers (“Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers”).
At the time Russell was bigger than any of Blank’s people, but “Poem” is present to see him back at the homestead, banging out music and occasionally entertaining name guests. Willie Nelson and George Jones pay visits, as did Bob Dylan, alas unfilmed. (The curious title hails from the liner notes for “Bringing It All Back Home” — surely among the most deep cut inspirations for a movie title.) Russell performs ragtag live versions of, among others, his two most-known hits — “A Song for You” and “Tight Rope” — and is in general at peak him. By 1972, at 30, he’d grown prematurely old, which gave him a great, great look: long gray locks and a deep black beard, with ever-red bug eyes struggling to be seen. He hadn’t yet done too much damage to his braying twang and, parading shirt-opened about ramshackle environs, he looks at one with the locals and any other artists that mill about.
Then again, Russell’s not really the film’s focus. Two years ambling about in a town that seems as far off as “Burden of Dreams” Peruvian jungle produced untold arresting diversions. Blank frequently wanders far afield from the Russell Compound, shooting parties, neighboring artists, well-wishers, old couples, young couples and tractor pulls. Blank offers what could be described as an early equivalent of a particularly happy Tumblr page or Instagram feed, reproducing what he likes, what he finds too crazy to be real.
That description does shortchange Blank’s cinematic talents. If his films sometimes have no clear structure — “Poem,” like most of his work, doesn’t appear to be remotely chronological — it’s because he’s getting lost in creating worlds that have no beginning, middle or end. There’s nothing to fence these people in, and likewise there’s nothing to force Blank to adhere to some readymade template. He loves to mix up his images with music, and especially loves to shoot setting suns or burning suns or birds or simply the sky as music plays against it. He was trying to create the intangible and ineffable, and by making a film about an established commodity, he was able to portray him as being, like the filmmaker, truly free. “Poem” is a great movie to get lost in, especially on an oppressive summer day. It goes down like cool lemonade.