SXSW FILM 2015
By Linc Leifeste | March 31, 2015
Director: Les Blank
It’s crazy to think that Les Blank spent two years in the early-70’s filming a documentary on Leon Russell and spent many more years editing it, only to never see the film released during his lifetime. Having had the pleasure of screening A Poem Is a Naked Person myself at South by Southwest, in all its Blankian beauty, it seems almost a crime that this film stayed shelved as long as it did. But then considering that there were two eccentric artists involved, each with their own distinct visions, maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Ostensibly a documentary about legendary musician Leon Russell, Blank’s film is actually much more than that. What it does is strikingly capture a long-gone time and place, 1970’s rural Oklahoma: lakes, sunsets, catfishing, tractor pulls, a parachuting competition, a building demolition, a parade, and endless colorful Oklahoma characters. To watch this film today is to be filled with an almost unavoidable longing nostalgia, but the beauty of it all is that there’s nothing nostalgic about Blank’s approach, obviously, as he was simply capturing the people and places of Russell’s Oklahoma. But then the film got shelved, giving the viewing of it in 2015 an added mystical, magical quality.
Not to say that Russell’s not a star of the film, just that he might not be the star of the film. Evidently, he was interested in making this film and it was his people that initially reached out to Blank with the idea, but it seems clear from his presence in the film that he was not interested in sitting down in front of the camera and talking about himself. Instead, what you see is him at work and at play: performing on stage in front of eager audiences, recording in the famed Nashville studio, Bradley’s Barn, and hanging out at his studio complex outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
For a fan of old country music like myself, being able to see legendary Nashville studio musicians such as Pete Drake and Charlie McCoy at work is a gift. And then there’s the absolutely spellbinding studio performance by George Jones, cigarette dangling from his mouth while strumming on his guitar, that Blank managed to capture. During a post-screening Q&A, there was even a rumor floated that Jones wound up sticking around the studio, hanging out and drinking and singing with his former duet partner, Melba Montgomery, possibly the final straw that inspired his then-current wife Tammy Wynette to opt for a divorce.
But back to Russell. It’s clear while watching that he’s in the midst of a wildly successful and confidently creative period. When he’s on stage or in the studio, he owns the space and captivates the audience, almost seeming to float over everything around him in some otherworldly way. For Leon Russell fans, it must be wildly satisfying to see him captured in this era. But even for those like me, who have never dug into Russell’s music or backstory, Blank’s eye for striking images and captivating people is also wildly satisfying.