Les Blank’s A Poem Is a Naked Person by Alex Zafiris

Thanks to his son, Harrod Blank, the filmmaker’s forty-year-old documentary on musician Leon Russell is finally released.

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Leon Russell in A Poem Is a Naked Person, directed by Les Blank, 1974. Courtesy of Janus Films.

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. Towards 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.

Alex Zafiris You must have seen Leon a lot now, with all this happening.

Maureen Gosling The first time Harrod and I reconnected with him, after something like forty years, was at Yoshi’s in Oakland. We went out to his tour bus. He invited us on, because Harrod had sent him a note. I hadn’t seen him in all that time, and it was surreal. It was fun though; it was exciting. We were sort of pinching ourselves, because it had been such a touchy subject with Les over the years. But as Leon even said at South by Southwest—someone asked him, “Why did it take so long to release the film?” And he said, “You know, I don’t remember.” It resolved a lot, him saying that. It was like: it’s not a big deal anymore. I mean, look, we’ve all gone through things, our lives have changed, and we’ve all changed. What’s the big deal at this point? It’s history, it’s a moment, and it’s pretty wonderful.

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Still from A Poem Is a Naked Person, directed by Les Blank, 1974. Courtesy of Janus Films.

Harrod Blank You brought up a great point—that Les Blank had changed a lot. Les was drinking heavily, and maybe acting obnoxious when he got drunk back in the day. That slowly curtailed over the course of his life. He became much more health-conscious as he got older and started hiking a lot. He became a little more talkative, actually. Because he was always very quiet.

What would be interesting is to see how Leon has changed. I didn’t know him back then. I just know him now. It could be that he’s very different as well.

AZ He did say in Billboard Magazine in 2011: “I paid for it and I own it, but I didn’t care for it. I’m not sure what the purpose was—it’s not my idea of a documentary.” It wasn’t what he’d expected. It sounds like he invited this amazing filmmaker to document him, and instead Les went in and documented everything and put a beautiful poem together. But it also seems that Leon didn’t really want to be filmed sometimes.

MG Well, he wasn’t around a lot. That was part of it. We were living at the lake, eighty-five miles northeast of Tulsa. The band would come up there infrequently. Once in a while, we would go into town when he was around. We only went on tour with him for about maybe four concerts, and we did go to the amazing Nashville recording session. I think Les was interested to know: “What do you want us to do?” Because we were on their payroll, basically, for two years. They were paying for it, but … Leon would be around, but he would be busy or distracted, and he wouldn’t answer questions, and Les was really frustrated. So, he thought, “Well, there’s a lot of stuff to film around here, and it all will relate somehow.” He always loved to film the environment where the musicians live, the people they hang out with, the culture that they’re involved with. I don’t think he had any idea, really, how it all would fit into a film, but that’s how it usually is. We had the time to be creative, and Les just really maximized that. It was an ultimate stream of consciousness kind of thing.

There are a lot of great themes and messages in the film. It’s more than just about Leon, even though Leon’s significant in it—it’s about a time, and a place. It’s funny and fun, poignant, and thoughtful. There is a lot of good stuff there.

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Les Blank’s camera on the set of A Poem Is a Naked Person, directed by Les Blank, 1974. Courtesy of Janus Films.

AZ For me, Leon’s not really the star of it. It feels like a collection of values. Maureen, were you present for the first edit of the film? I know that Les changed it over time.

MG He edited the film when we were there. At the same time, he edited Dry Wood and Hot Pepper, which we had just shot in Louisiana. Over the years, casually, every once in a while, Les would show it publicly. Then he would say, “You know what, that scene really is kind of excessive,” or “It makes the film too long”—

HB “Slows it down too much.”

MG So he would go back and say, “Let’s cut this out.” And we’d just chop it, splice it back together, and show that version. He couldn’t really edit it properly, because he just had prints. He didn’t have the work print and soundtrack and everything. When it was cut and spliced together sometimes there was a blip!

HB He was limited with what he had to work with. He only had the film itself, from 1974.

AZ Because Leon owned all the footage.

HB Right. There are a lot of questions about that. Where was it? What happened? There’s a lot about it nobody knows. Part of it was because Leon and his partner Lenny Cordell from Shelter Records had a break-up, and that’s where a lot of the mystery lies.

It’s funny you mentioned values. Last night, we showed it at BAM. A woman in the audience seemed somewhat upset, and she said, “I need to ask one question. The snake eating the chick is extremely disturbing to me. I would like to know if this was something Leon asked for. Did the man who wrote ‘A Song For You’ … Did he do this?” And I said, “No. That was all Les Blank. That was Les Blank’s interest.”

Leon said at South by Southwest that “this is more a film about Les Blank than it is about me.” And that is partly true. So I relieved the woman by saying, “No, the man who wrote ‘A Song For You’ did not have anything to do with the snake eating the chick in the movie.” And she was relieved. She came up to me after the show, and she kept shaking my hand, “Thank you! Thank you!” I gotta tell that story to Leon. I got a feeling that might be the reaction that could have struck a lot of other people as well.

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Jim Franklin in A Poem Is a Naked Person, directed by Les Blank, 1974. Courtesy of Janus Films.

MG Sure.

HB A real percentage of the audience found that disturbing. The rest of the audience found it to be great. So it’s a mix on that one. But some people could not understand the periphery, and why it was in the film, and why there was the montage of the building falling down, and the snake eating the chick, and the security guard. And I said, “Well, it all kind of makes sense when you look at it as a whole.”

MG And connect it all.

AZ Perhaps Leon didn’t get it at the time?

HB Possibly not at the time. You have to remember where he was, in his journey of life.

AZ That’s it. He really was at the pinnacle of his fame. Everybody was around, people were coming down to Tulsa to see him. He has that rock-star vibe. That must have been tricky, because I can’t imagine Les would be impressed by that.

MG Right. Before we did the film, we didn’t know who he was. Suddenly we had to get educated about who this guy was, and we found out that he had made this big impression with “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” with Joe Cocker, and it was like “Woah, okay.” And then of course we saw him perform and said, “Wow, this is fabulous.”

One thing that I think the film does, too, is really show his musical roots and connections—there’s the gospel connection, even though it was black church. I’m sure he grew up in a white gospel church. Certainly it was around him. And there’s the whole country scene, the country musicians, and the connection with Willie Nelson and George Jones, who appear in the film. You hear it in his music, those influences. It is a subtle way of saying, “This is who was influencing him, who touched him.”

AZ That’s why it doesn’t feel nostalgic, despite being from 1972 to ’74. All those themes and issues—the tension between creativity and money, the metaphor of the snake and the chick. All those still exist now. It feels very timeless in that way.

Harrod, you were nine when this was going on. Do you remember any feelings?

HB Oh yeah. I remember the lake. I remember the catfish, the swimming pool with the scorpions. I was fascinated by all that. I didn’t get to meet Leon, but I did idolize him, and I did do some sharpie pen drawings of him, which I still have. I also liked the Shelter Records logo, which was an egg with a Superman logo on it. I used to put that on my school notebooks. I think I even had a t-shirt. I was into Shelter Records and loved all the artists. Leon and Denny Cordell had great taste in music.

Something that I’ve been discovering about Leon is that he’s a visionary beyond his own music thing. He brought all these great musicians in to do the album Hank Wilson’s Back!, and he had been working with Bob Marley from early on. In fact, I found out from Leon that he had done the very first music video of Bob Marley.

AZ I wonder if Leon understands this idea of being the connector. You know, in retrospect, and at the time he didn’t perhaps necessarily—

HB Oh, he may not have been given the credit in the industry. He may have a sore spot about that—I don’t know. What I’m learning is that he is behind a lot of stuff, and nobody knows that. He was a visionary, beyond making music, which is something I find fascinating.

MG He was a session musician, and he played on a lot of people’s albums. He had his fingerprints on tons of records. That was one of the things that impressed me when we were around him: what a good producer he was. Putting people together and knowing what was going to sound good.

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Les Blank filming Leon Russell on the set of A Poem Is a Naked Person, directed by Les Blank, 1974. Courtesy of Janus Films.

AZ What was it like to record live, on stage? It doesn’t look like there was much security. It was very free-for-all.

MG It was a trip. As an assistant at the time, I sat on the stage almost under the piano, changing camera magazines for Les. This other guy Dan would change camera magazines for Baird Bryant. I also had the guide-track going, on the Nagra tape recorder. It was plugged into their feed. I think the concerts we filmed probably all have sixteen-track versions somewhere. For the film, what ended up in the movie, there is just guide-track stuff, live mix stuff that we had. There’s one song where you can actually hear me yelling, “Camera Roll 5!” That was the version that was used.

I was really learning about how to be an assistant at that point. Before that, Les just told me what to do. I didn’t really know how much was part of the job, and how much was him as a guy talking to this young woman, telling her what to do. I watched the other assistant, and I saw that he was doing everything to facilitate things for his cameraman, so I realized that this was what I needed to do. Get over the gender stuff and just do the job. So suddenly, I was trying to do a really good job, and be as fast as I could.

AZ So there’s a lot of extra footage floating around. This film has a mystical status.

HB There’s a lot of mystery. I wonder how many other projects there are like this that were stopped post-stream, just sitting there in limbo. I stopped my whole life for two years to release this film, because I thought it was an important film, an important work. I mean yes, it’s Les’s, and I’m obligated to my father, but beyond that, even if it wasn’t my father, I would still feel so strongly about the movie that I would dedicate my time to preserve it.

A Poem Is A Naked Person opens in major cities throughout the summer. Check here for dates and locations.

Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York.

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