Film Review: A Poem Is a Naked Person

In 1972, documentarian Les Blank (Burden of Dreams) was hired by rock musician Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell to film Russell and his band on tour, and in his recording studio in Northeast Oklahoma. Over the course of the next two years, Blank recorded Russell, his entourage and surroundings, resulting in A Poem is a Naked Person, which Blank considered to be one of his best films.

Russell, however, wasn’t happy with the finished product. That, coupled with a falling out between Russell and Cordell, kept Blank’s film from being shown, with the exception of non-commercial screenings, at which the director was required to be present. Between 1974 and Blank’s death in 2013, underground screenings hosted by the director were the only way to see the film, an impediment that only added to its cult reputation. Thanks to Blank’s son, Harrod, and the Criterion Collection, A Poem is a Naked Person has finally received a wide release on DVD and Blu-ray.

A Poem is a Naked Person truly lives up to its poetic name. It’s a free-flowing film that cuts between concert recordings, interviews with Russell, his bandmates and friends, and slices of life from Russell’s neighbors in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma. Watching it feels a bit like discovering a pressurized vault, filled with perfectly-preserved historical artifacts. While Blank certainly captured a particular moment in Russell’s career, he was clearly more interested in capturing the spirit of a time and a place. The director manages to do so perfectly — shifting from ecstatic concertgoers on the road to pretentious hippie artists to the catfish noodlers in Russell’s backyard.

But these shifts aren’t arbitrary. Each one draws a parallel between subcultures. In one section, Blank shows a service at an African-American church, where congregation members dance and jump and hug each other much like the fans in Russell’s audience. Another scene documents a bad acid trip, followed a few minutes later by a middle-aged skydiving instructor nonchalantly chomping a beer glass — each sequence positing that perhaps these groups might not be that different from each other, despite what they might think.

A fascinating mix of 70s style, drug-culture weirdness and old-fashioned country charm, A Poem is a Naked Person wasn’t the concert film that Leon Russell wanted. Fortunately for us, it’s something much better: a sort of video photo album, a wild and fun exploration of the contradictions and overlaps of influence contained in Russell’s music, and the musical culture he was part of. Criterion’s edition of the film is filled with updated interviews and Q&A sessions with Blank, Russell and other players in the film, which provide valuable context on the documentary’s creation, and subsequent legal woes.

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