Friday, November 24, 2017

A Poem is a Naked Person (1974)

Les Blank was an odd duck. He spent his life making documentaries, and his eclectic interests are reflected in his work, from a film about garlic, to an oddity called Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe. His best stuff, though, came when he brought his peculiar blend of raw authenticity and poetry to diverse kinds of music.

Particularly drawn to the South, one of Blank’s early standouts was The Blues Accordin’ to Lightin’ Hopkins, about the legendary blues maestro from Texas. Scanning his body of work you’ll find other music-related docs such as Chulas Fronteras, about Texas-Mexico border music, plus films on Ry Cooder and jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

But nothing in Blank’s filmography stands out quite like A Poem is a Naked Person, his intimate chronicling of the brilliant and eccentric singer-songwriter Leon Russell. Every bit as soulful and mysterious as its title, the movie follows Russell from the recording studio to live shows, with behind-the-scenes footage peppered in-between. But if you think this is the type of documentary built around getting ‘exclusive access’ to an artist then you’d be mistaken.

Shot between 1972-1974, the film takes its free form approach seriously. Blank always seems most interested in Russell, but to him part of capturing a musician is to understand the essence of his environment. As such, you’ll find Blank seemingly abandon Russell at points to focus on strangers at a wedding where Russell happens to be performing, or on a completely random elderly couple attending a demolition in Russell’s home state of Oklahoma (large portions of the film take place there, where Russell had set up his recording studio on Grand Lake). Willie Nelson and George Jones also show up for a few songs, and there’s plenty of nature imagery as well. A sunset reflected on a lake and a snake devouring a baby chick show nature as beautiful and cruel. If these cannot be reconciled, then Blank seems to feel the world needs music for compensation.

Russell, who died last year at age 74, had a ubiquitous presence in music. With his trademark long hair (turned a silvery gray by age 30), beard, wild eyes, and energetic piano and vocal style, you’d think he might have built his career solely around his own lively aura. The opposite is true, as Russell spent his life bouncing between genres like blues, gospel, rock, and country and collaborating with dozens of artists, from Sinatra and the Beach Boys to Willie Nelson. Though a standout in a crowd, Russell always put the music front and center. Whatever ego he had always seemed hidden, or at least obscured by the sheer bravura of his musical abilities.

And that’s essentially the impression you get of him in A Poem is a Naked Person. The film does not reveal much about his personality other than that he was a lively performer and pretty laid back the rest of the time. There are brief moments of philosophical musing, but his ideas are mostly muddled, like when he states “the only dumb animal is a dead animal and we’re all dumb cause we’re all gonna die.” But if Russell the person does not make much of an impression, Russell the musician more than compensates. When you see him perform in the film you sense he’s putting his entire being into his songs. “You have to be yourself and trust that it’s not ugly,” he says at one point in reference to his need to play music. The great irony about Russell then is that he embraced the collaborative nature of music making while simultaneously exposing his utter dependence on it for his own well-being. It’s almost like sitting at his piano and belting out lyrics was his own personal survival kit. Because he looks somewhat like a caveman, maybe it’s not a stretch to say that seeing Russell play emits a kind of primal force.

In some ways it’s hard to call A Poem is a Naked Person a great music documentary since its equal parts an expression of Blank’s strangeness and Russell’s iconic sound. I believe Russell wanted a more traditional documentary that centered purely on its subject and was less concerned with mood and style. "I paid for it and I own it but I didn't care for it," Russell said in 2010. The film never actually was released until 2015, after Blank’s death.

Russell looked and sounded like no one else, so if this is the film we’re left with of him then maybe it’s fitting that it doesn’t fit snugly in the tradition of music documentaries. Russell preached the need to be oneself. If you don’t like the film, at least you can’t say Blank didn’t uphold that notion.


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