Thanks to his son, Harrod Blank, the filmmaker’s forty-year-old documentary on musician Leon Russell is finally released.
In May of 1972, Les Blank and his assistant, Maureen Gosling, traveled to Tulsa to begin shooting a documentary on Leon Russell. Blank had just left Louisiana, where he had filmed the footage for Dry Wood, an in-depth look at Creole people, their life, food, and music, and Hot Pepper, about local legend Clifton Chenier, who was also known as the “King of Zydeco.” Blank had already made Dizzy Gillespie (1965), Christopher Tree (1967), and The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1969-70), captured images of the Los Angeles “Love-In” of 1967 with God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, and filmed the LSD scene in Easy Rider (1969) alongside cinematographer Baird Bryant. His interest in traditional music and counterculture was so immersive and all-consuming that when Russell and his producer, Denny Cordell, commissioned him to make a film about Russell, Blank didn’t know who he was.
That year, Russell was enjoying enormous success as a writer, performer, and recording artist with his third solo album, Carney. He was on a nationwide tour. His label, Shelter Records, which he co-founded with Cordell, was putting out music by J.J. Cale, Don Nix, and Freddie King, and was responsible for releasing Bob Marley’s first American single. The past two years had seen Russell release his first eponymous record, which included his biggest hit, “A Song For You,” and he was just coming off of collaborations with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and B.B. King. By ’72, he decided to relocate to Tulsa, his hometown, and set up Paradise Studios, located a few hours drive northeast in Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees. When Blank and Gosling arrived, they were housed nearby on the water in an old floating fisherman’s motel, where they lived for the next two years.
Russell returned to Tulsa and Grand Lake as a huge presence with an entourage. Many of his friends—among them Willie Nelson, George Jones, and Charlie McCoy—appear in unguarded, intimate performances. Blank’s camera focuses on the locals with equal reverence, layering it all with lingering shots of the moon, ripples in the lake, or a wriggling catfish caught on a line. He films artist Jim Franklin scooping up scorpions from an empty swimming pool; he’s onstage with Russell, who samples from a plate of gumbo on his piano as he performs to a blissed-out crowd; he attends the demolition of a city building and a pie-eating contest. Toward the middle, he introduces a segment where Franklin feeds a baby chick to a snake while the artist sounds off about the corporatization of America, an unsettling and cynical metaphor that anchors some of the anxieties expressed throughout. Early on, a young Bill Mullins laments his generation’s lack of spiritual leadership. When Blank questions Russell about money, Russell responds that he can’t think about it too much or he’ll get blocked. “I won’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “If I feel I know what I’m doing, then I know what I am doing.”
After viewing the completed work, Russell prevented it from being released. The two men never spoke again. Blank was only permitted to screen the film at nonprofit institutions, and kept working on it. A few years ago, when his health began to wane, his son Harrod—aware of how much the film meant to his father—reached out to Russell. Blank died soon afterwards, but Harrod kept pushing for the release, which Russell finally granted. A Poem Is a Naked Person is about these two complex, visionary men whose deep connections to sound and image could not quite meet, despite both of them communicating their own interests vividly and masterfully. After forty years, the film’s allure deepens as it resurfaces in a new era, reigniting old mysteries and creating new ones. Gosling went on to become a prolific documentarian, and Harrod is an artist, writer, and filmmaker. I spoke to them at the end of June at the Criterion Collection offices in New York.
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