The films of Les Blank are not quite documentaries, but are also not fiction films. They lack narrative and structure, and yet aren’t experimental. The world of Les Blank occupies its own time, space, and logic. His films look like no others, and yet do not feel foreign or overly strange. This film, supposedly about singer Leon Russell, meanders and touches everything else imaginable and only settles on Russel when it seems necessary. But this is typical of Blank’s films. He loves to introduce us to his subject, abandon them, and spend his time contextualizing them. This means we see less of them and more of who and what they surround themselves with. In the case of Leon Russell, this includes pop-art painters, blue-collar workers, hippies, British intellectuals, traditional African musicians, and black gospel singers from a local church congregation. Blank turns his camera toward an old couple from Oklahoma (“Okies” for short), various fan-girls, and other musicians (including George Jones).
A Poem is a Naked Person is less about Leon Russell and more about rock and roll music and American music culture in general. Spread throughout are wonderful performances by Leon Russell and his band, as well as other singers. The music includes such genres as country, rock and roll, blues, bluegrass, and gospel. Every performance, even if not a technically perfect one, have all the energy, life, and power of a live performance. Blank’s camera, ever moving and never on a tripod, gives each song such a vitality and urgency that you feel as though you are actually present and hearing it in person.
When the film is over you will know no more about Leon Russell than when it began. So if you are looking for a revealing, Let it Be (1970, dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg) sort of music documentary, then look elsewhere. That is not Blank’s purpose. His body of work aims to take portions of American culture, such as creole music and food, and contextualize them in the subculture. In this case Les Blank seems, however, to make less of a film about Leon Russell and more about rock and roll culture in general. He succeeded so much in this regarded that Leon Russell hated the film and blocked its release for over forty years.
“It seemed like it was more a film about Les than about me, which is okay, I guess.”
– Leon Russell
At various points Blank cuts back and forth between various scenes and locations to provide commentary on Russell and his music. The greatest example of this is when Blank intercuts four different scenes: (1) a building being demolished and the crowd watching it, (2) a baby chick being fed to a snake, (3) Leon and his band performing at a concert, and (4) Leon discussing the “industry” with a girl. At first we are led to assume that the snake eating the bird is tied to Leon discussing the industry and consumerism. But then as the concert ends the building crumbles, the snake swallows the bird, and the concert crashes to an end. Somehow we come to the conclusion that rock and roll seems to have some sort of destructive nature to it. Further more, after the building is in ruins people walk around collecting pieces of the rubble, and this scene immediately cuts to Leon signing autographs for hungry fans. Just like the crowd that wants pieces of a ruined building, the fans want pieces of Russell and his career.
I suppose the most interesting contrast Les draws, however, is at a moment when Russell does a sing-along, back-and-forth song with the audience at his concert. This scene is intercut with a crazy, energetic, jumping and shouting church service during which the song leader shouts a phrase and the congregation repeats it back. A Poem is a Naked Person is a patchwork quilt if it is anything. It is nothing and everything. A movie that completely ignores its subject and seems to look at everything except Leon Russell.
What does it all mean? I don’t know. But it has something to do with a tractor-pull