A Poem is a Naked Person

On the set of A Poem Is a Naked Person

For years, fans of Les Blank traded rumors about A Poem Is a Naked Person, a documentary about musician Leon Russell that was finished in 1974 but never released. Shot over a two-year period, the film observes the musician at his studio compound outside Tulsa, Oklahoma; live in concert at New Orleans and Anaheim; and during recording sessions for his roots album Hank Wilson's Back in Nashville.

A singer, songwriter, and producer, Russell had recently worked with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Joe Cocker, while simultaneously embarking on a solo career. A professional musician since the age of 14, Russell had been a member of The Wrecking Crew, an informal Los Angeles group that backed countless rock and pop singles and albums. Russell played on records by The Byrds, Frank Sinatra, and Herb Alpert. He drew from a broad swath of American musical styles, from rock and soul to country, gospel, even easy listening.

In Blank, Russell found a filmmaker whose tastes ranged just as widely. Now, thanks in large part to Blank's son, Harrod, the movie is finally screening tonight at the South by Southwest Film Festival. And this summer Janus Films plans a theatrical release, followed by a Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD package.

Just as he did in his 1970 documentary The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins, Blank uses Russell's music as a gateway into a striking and largely vanished world of floating motels, goose grabs, and tractor pulls. In A Poem Is a Naked Person Blank's camera not only documents the dusty storefronts and spare streets of small-town Oklahoma, but works its way into a wedding, a powwow, a parachute championship, “catfish noodling,” and building demolition.

The songs recorded on film range from spirituals to honky-tonk laments, from waltzes and breakdowns to Russell's own singles: “Tightrope,” “Shoot Out on the Plantation,” “A Song for You.” Harrod Blank describes A Poem as a gumbo.

A Poem is a Naked Person

A Poem Is a Naked Person

“And a gumbo is only as good as the ingredients you put into it,” Harrod said in an interview in New York last month. “Leon Russell, George Jones, Willie Nelson, they all make this gumbo pretty strong.” Harrod, who was 9 at the time of the shoot, spent the summer with his father in a motel for fishermen on a lake next to Russell's compound.

“Each room had its own boat slip,” he recalls. Les turned one of the rooms into an editing bay, working first on a Moviola he shipped from Hollywood, and then on an eight-plate KEM editing table supplied by Leon.

“At the time it was the Rolls Royce of editing machines. We could play three pictures at the same time, and two or three soundtracks,” Maureen Gosling, a longtime Blank collaborator, said by phone. “We were able to edit Dry Wood and Hot Pepper at the same time we were shooting Leon's film.”

Gosling remembers being in Dallas with Blank when he got a call from Russell and Denny Cordell, a producer and his partner at the time in Shelter Records. “They had liked his films, wanted him to consider doing one on Leon. We drove from Dallas to Oklahoma and never went any further, we just stayed there. We ended up there for two years.”

A sound recordist and editor, Gosling collaborated with Blank for 20 years, on films like the grueling Fitzcarraldo chronicle Burden of Dreams (82) and In Heaven There Is No Beer? (84). For A Poem Is a Naked Person she used a Nagra tape recorder with a shotgun boom mike; Blank shot in 16mm color stock with an Eclair NPR.

A Poem is a Naked Person

A Poem Is a Naked Person

“I guess we filmed about 50 or 60 hours of footage,” Gosling said. “For Nashville and the concerts there were two additional cameramen. The recording session in Nashville, Leon actually produced a complete album in three or four days.”

Blank and his crew captured extraordinary concert footage—intimate, sweaty, incantatory music shaped for the moment at hand, with Russell and his musicians feeding off the responses of their audiences. The studio recording sequences have a different sense of intimacy, of polished professionals displaying casual, almost effortless expertise.

Blank filmed at Bradley's Barn in Nashville, birthplace of hits by Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and other country stars. A Poem Is a Naked Person features some of the best country musicians alive at the time, including George Jones, accompanied by only his guitar, a cigarette, and a Budweiser as he casually tosses off a majestic version of “Take Me.”

Russell's encounters with musicians yield some of the best material in the film: pianist David Briggs, part of the famous Muscle Shoals recording team; Willie Nelson, showing in concert just how he would help shift country music into a completely new direction; folkie Eric Andersen working his way through “Time Run Like a Freight Train.”

Harrod said his father's penetrating camerawork was a result of luck and patience.

A Poem is a Naked Person

A Poem Is a Naked Person

“He would be filming with one eye and looking out with the other ahead of the shot. He would anticipate when to move the camera,” Harrod said. “In Lightnin' Hopkins, people going across the street, he just kept following, he didn't give up. He kept following, and finally something happens. He's shooting because he thought it was beautiful and then it would develop and he would get lucky.”

In the 1970s, concert movies were prestige items, at times vanity projects, at the least a way for musicians to connect with a new marketplace. 1967's Dont Look Back introduced Bob Dylan to a wider audience, while Monterey Pop, Festival Express, and Woodstock brought the festival experience to those unable to attend. The Rolling Stones appeared in Jean-Luc Godard's One A.M., were the subject of the documentary Gimme Shelter, and commissioned Robert Frank to make a feature about them. Led Zeppelin released The Song Remains the Same; The Band made The Last Waltz with Martin Scorsese; and Russell himself appeared in Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a feature about a 1970 Joe Cocker tour he helped produce.

Gosling believes that Russell and Denny Cordell, his partner at Shelter Records, had seen The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin' Hopkins, a brilliant, atmospheric portrait of a relatively obscure musician.

“They may have expected a more traditional film,” she said. “At the same time they had seen Les's films so they knew that they were not exactly typical. As we went along, we let [Russell] know what we were filming. But long periods of time would go by before we would see him or go on the road with him. So there was lots of downtime, that was when we filmed these other things.”

“I don't think Leon wanted to be interviewed a lot,” Harrod suggests. “When Les couldn't do interviews, he went around and filmed what he was attracted to: lake footage, sunsets, beautiful women, eccentric characters, Oklahoma folk.”

A Poem is a Naked Person

A Poem Is a Naked Person

Russell was in the midst of one of his most creative periods, but he may have felt conflicted about the music industry as a whole. His single at the time, “Tightrope,” reflects some of that ambivalence.

“We definitely had some difficult periods, there were disagreements or problems, but we usually got through them. And Les did get to finish editing the film,” Gosling pointed out.

“I have some letters that I wrote to my parents during that time,” she added. “In one of them I wrote that we had double-system projection set up in Leon's recording studio. Several times we showed them dailies, three or four hours of stuff at a time.”

“There was an ‘original' cut in 1974, but Les kept chipping away at it,” Harrod explained. “As he got older, he got less patient for the slow parts and would cut them out. We kept it the way he wanted. Now it's 90 minutes. I think he cut out 12 minutes. And when I looked at it, it totally made sense why he did.”

Russell and Cordell would end their relationship in 1976, leaving the fate of A Poem Is a Naked Person still up in the air.

“I don't know specifically what happened, but I know there were a lot of rights issues,” Gosling said. “I don't even know if Les realized that before, how hard it would be.”

“I'm still working on rights to 29 songs,” Harrod said, a week before the SXSW screening. “That's probably why this hasn't come out before.”

Maureen Gosling

Maureen Gosling during shooting

“On the other hand, Les wasn't very good at communicating, and he wouldn't be willing to compromise. If he came and filmed you at your house for dinner, you'd forget he was even there. What did my grandmother say? ‘He disappears into the wallpaper.’ And of course Leon didn't want to compromise either.”

Picture two passive-aggressive artists engaged in a staring contest, neither one willing to blink first.

“Leon wrote somewhere that his music expresses his love,” Harrod said. “Love is in his music. And Les, his love is in his camera. He only films things he has positive feelings for. He doesn't want to dig up dirt on somebody, and he would never do that about Leon.”

Still, the inability to release A Poem Is a Naked Person was a heavy blow to Blank.

“I remember seeing him with his head in his heads, 'Woe is me,' dealing with his demons,” Harrod said.

Harrod oversaw the digital restoration of A Poem Is a Naked Person and has been a prime factor in the movie's release. “It was his dream to see this released. My whole career's been about art cars and filmmaking. I sort of put my life on hold to see this through.”

Les Blank

Les Blank during shooting

Gosling still remembers the moments on A Poem they missed: Leon and Bob Dylan seeking privacy on a canoe, Phoebe Snow singing “Poetry Man,” an incendiary take of “It's Gonna Rain” by the O'Neal Twins that somehow vanished.

Blank had an uncanny ability to express music in visual terms.  His next project, Chulas Fronteras, elected to the National Film Registry, probed deeply into Tex-Mex culture while spotlighting stars like Flaco Jiménez. Gosling also hopes to see more of his work released, including a documentary on Ry Cooder and an unfinished piece on Huey Lewis and the News. Harrod recently discovered unseen footage of Dizzy Gillespie, and admits that more buried treasures might be found.

As for Leon Russell, he re-entered the spotlight with the release of The Union, his collaboration with Elton John and Bernie Taupin, in 2010. Life Journey, his latest collection, came out in 2014. Russell will be attending the SXSW screening of A Poem Is a Naked Person.

“He's in for a big surprise,” Harrod says. “I think he's going to find a lot of love from this.”