By Daniel Barnes
Les Blank (Burden of Dreams) started shooting A Poem is a Naked Person in 1972 and completed it in 1974. However, the film was held up for decades by legal issues, and it’s only now getting a proper theatrical release.
Although ostensibly a behind-the-scenes/concert documentary about chicken-fried rock star Leon Russell building a recording studio in his native Oklahoma, Blank instead offers wave after wave of Vernon, Florida-esque local color. He spends more time in the picking parlors and the pool halls and the “floating motel cabins” than he does with Russell.
It’s a funky, weird, hazy, and often hilarious ramble, mixing footage of Russell’s exuberant live shows and recording sessions with ethnographic portraits of Oklahoma oddballs. For example, there’s the parachute instructor who chugs a beer and proceeds to eat the entire glass. There is also the small-town main street parade that features a horrifying goose-throwing game. Don’t forget the crowds who eagerly gather in downtown Tulsa to watch their city crumble in a controlled explosion.
Blank does not attempt to “get to know” Russell, but the film’s loosely knit Dust Bowl melting pot ideology seems to perfectly align with Russell’s genre-blurring music and Zen-grizzle spaceman personality. Russell sprawls across the line between traditionalist and iconoclast, equally at home with hippie freaks and high society and gospel choirs and Oklahoma good ol’ boys, and both his life and his music connect a lot of disparate dots. My favorite: the elderly woman who tells her husband he looks “awful cute” with his Leon Russell-inspired long hair.
A Poem is a Naked Person perfectly captures a particular time not just in America, but in American music. It almost feels like a road show rehearsal for Nashville.