It’s impossible for Les Blank’s A Poem is a Naked Person to not be taken in by audiences as above all a time capsule. Emerging in 2015, 40 years after its initial completion due to legal and personal wrangling, the film’s primary service and entry point to modern audiences will likely be as a never-before-seen look at a time and place that in the years since has been romanticised and obituarised beyond rational comprehension. The film, and the story behind it for that matter, is far more interesting than that though and watching it now is a curious thing indeed for not just those time capsule elements that are indeed fascinating, but also for its historical context as an important work of non-fiction filmmaking due in large part to the radical formal experiments that Blank employs in the aid of what could have been a fairly rudimentary documentary about a genius but rudely temperamental artist that merely copies the structure of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back.
A Poem is a Naked Person was completed in 1974 from some 60 hours of footage filmed by Blank while on the road in Oklahoma with blues and folk rock singer Leon Russell and his entourage. Disagreements between Blank and Russell lead to the film being effectively blackballed from release over rights issues and was only ever shown with Blank in attendance and with proceeds typically going to charity. He continued to tinker with the film until his death in 2013 and now, thankfully, has been allowed to see the light of day with the help of Blank’s son Harrod, an author and occasional filmmaker, as well as Leon Russell, who has admitted to not liking the film.
Russell may not have liked the product because he was ultimately not the main focus of Blank’s camera. While the live footage that is filtered throughout is marvelous – lit with bright red, the camera only ever briefly moving away from his bearded face and his body covered in denim-on-denim to flirtatiously catch sight of his band – A Poem is a Naked Person is ultimately more concerned with what is going on around this force of nature performer. Blank isn’t afraid of the artistic wrath that he may incur and rather than making a Leon Russell film, has made what is defiantly a Les Blank film full of all of the idiosyncrasies that one would expect. The film even begins and ends with other people and in many instances, these interlopers into Russell’s world are what makes the film the curious artifact that it is.
One sequence involving painter Jim Franklin casually strolling through an empty pool collecting scorpions before starting on a large, spiralling mural is truly wonderful and the sort of image that it’s hard to imagine the film without, but which was surely a strange detour at the time. Another involving Eric Anderson and Russell sparring over who they think was the rudest to each other has a dynamic tension to its backstage voyeurism that isn’t captured anywhere else and which helps form a broader picture of the performer. Viewing this film in the 1970s as intended would have likely left fans of the singer confounded and critics confused by Blank’s complex assemblage of footage into a somewhat experimental beast that veers away from being a another Woodstock. Hopefully audiences today who would go out of their way to watch something such as A Poem is a Naked Person will be struck by the way this marathon feature came to look so effortless and found a way to make Russell not so much the entire story, but rather the central figure in a living, breathing ecosystem.