A Poem Is a Naked Person: I Shall Be Released

On Film / Essays — Mar 29, 2016
Poem essay

Like a bottled message that has taken forty years to return to shore comes Les Blank’s A Poem Is a Naked Person. For those of us who did not attend the isolated, unannounced screenings that Blank arranged over the years, and who are not steeped in the lore of this singular American filmmaker, the film blasts forth like a fresh wind. This is not an everyday occurrence. We have grown used to minor or seminal works being brought into the light, movies or pieces of movies discovered in mislabeled cans or boxes or rescued from state suppression. But it’s almost unprecedented to suddenly come face-to-face with a largely unknown major work. That’s what we’re dealing with here. Blank’s free-form portrait of the legendary musician and onetime rock star Leon Russell—Tulsa Sound pioneer, core Wrecking Crew member, session piano player for everyone from Sinatra to the Beach Boys—is an artifact, to be sure. The film brims over with a thousand details and inflections that belong squarely to the years in which it was shot. But it is also a remarkable meditation on and interpretation of those details and inflections, which are lifted and spun through the centrifugal force of Blank’s practice into a magical film experience.

The title, a quote from Bob Dylan’s liner notes for Bringing It All Back Home, was mandated by Russell himself, for reasons unknown, and in the end the choice turned out to be an apt one. A poem, like a naked person, comes forth without alibis or excuses. It is a high-wire walk without a safety net, and it renounces all special privileges—it must earn its claim on us. The poem in question is, finally, the movie itself, which would have been just as alarmingly naked in 1974 as it was when it was finally released in 2015. Russell and his then partner, Denny Cordell, could have commissioned any number of dependable journeyman directors to shoot and deliver a standard tour documentary, but they decided to turn to Blank, an independent filmmaker with a handful of seldom-seen short and medium-length movies under his belt, each of them lovingly fixed on homegrown, spontaneously generated American culture—the music of Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins, a Los Angeles love-in, the wild and sensual world of Cajun Louisiana. They wanted an individual artist as opposed to a technician, and what they got was not only unorthodox in the extreme but a genuine work. A poem of cinema.

Like many other poems, before and after it, Blank’s film was greeted with incredulity and bafflement by its first audiences, including its producers. “I thought it was more of a movie about him than it was about me,” said Russell in a recent interview of his initial reaction. He refused to sign off on Blank’s cut and maintained control of the material—“I thought it might be of value in the future,” he said. The future that, as it turned out, was very far away. Russell eventually put an official halt to all public exhibition of Poem, and the filmmaker was able to screen his own print at private, nonprofit events only because of a loophole he had discovered in the agreement.

I can tell you that at the time, this particular Russell fan, then thir­teen years old (seeing Blank’s film brought my attachment to the music and the image immediately back to life), would have been disappointed by all the detours away from the man himself and into local Oklahoma color, on-the-spot philosophizing, psychedelic mural painting, drug-fueled ecstasy and anxiety, shoptalk among session players, and, in particular, the country-and-western vibe. In the post–Kent State era of Nixon’s silent majority and “America—Love It or Leave It” bumper stickers, I would have been shocked and dismayed to see Leon Russell, with his magnificent head of long, graying blond hair, the guy we all wanted to be, consorting with crew-cut session men. Of course, this is all based on the assumption that my mother would have allowed me to see a movie with a snake feeding on a baby chick, a skydiver who may or may not be the legendary D. B. Cooper eating glass, and a very bad acid trip in progress. Let’s say that it would have been highly unlikely.

Today, in the era of YouTube, the snake’s dinner and the freak-outs that gave Russell so much trouble (they still do, apparently) have been relieved of their shock value. I doubt that anyone now would find themselves in sync with Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau’s 1979 assessment of Poem, on the occasion of a rare showing at a Blank retrospective at MoMA, as “an arty horror movie of a documentary.” The polarities of early seventies America have been thoroughly altered over the years, and the iconographical signs and meanings of the moment have evaporated like a fine mist. We are now allowed to contemplate the short-haired session players and long-haired rockers, the glass-eating skydiver and hippie muralist and scorpion bottler, as they dance and sway and strut and freak out, as they joke and philosophize and play and sing, unencumbered by popular categories and clichés. Within the billowing forward motion of Blank’s film, structured not for pointed editorial commentary but for chromatically harmonious liftoff (among all documentary filmmakers, Blank was by far the greatest colorist), everyone and everything under the sun—and, for that matter, the sun itself, a constant presence, shining through the trees, reflected on the river, illuminating faces and bodies—is equal. In this sense, Russell’s absence for large portions of the two-year shoot presented the filmmaker with an opportunity rather than a limitation. (It also afforded him a more practical opportunity, by giving him the time to finish editing two previously shot films, Dry Wood and Hot Pepper.) In other words, Blank never had the chance to make a concert movie along the lines of Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the 1971 documentary shot on tour with Joe Cocker, in which Russell becomes a kind of costar, or 1972’s The Concert for Bangladesh, in which he is also prominently featured. Not that Blank was inclined to make a concert movie. And not that Poem doesn’t contain a bounty of immaculately shot musical performances, onstage and in the studio.

Let’s go back to the snake and the chick for a moment, referred to in several descriptions of the movie that I’ve read as Blank’s allegory for capitalism. Fair enough, especially given the fact that we are listening to offscreen ruminations from the snake’s owner, the aforementioned painter Jim Franklin, about consumption, albeit couched in some fairly lame hippie humor. But within the greater movement of the film, the event is broken up, thus playfully complicating both the anticipated horror (and gratification) and any kind of neat symbolic commentary. Blank shows us preparation for a Russell concert in Anaheim, and cuts from a security chief lecturing the guards on their duties for the night to Franklin depositing the baby chick on a mirror before his hungry snake. The chick happily cheeps away, the snake tenses for the kill, and Blank suddenly cuts to Russell onstage in full strut (and Mama Cass idly shaking a tambourine from the wings), which builds to a rave-up rendition of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” The scene is composed of exquisite images of the individual musicians in their own grooves, intercut with assorted members of the audience working themselves into ecstasy. Suddenly, we’re face-to-face with Authority: a short-haired, clipped security agent who strides up to Blank’s camera and curtly informs him that he and his crew are trespassing. Only then does the filmmaker cut back to the snake striking and silencing its prey, followed by another instant of delayed gratification, the demolition of a building in downtown Tulsa, picking up a thread from a little earlier in
the film.

Next we’re deposited backstage with Russell and his entourage, fans and groupies-in-waiting—in other words, the life of the early-seventies rock star. Meanwhile, Franklin’s commentary is not about the evils of capitalism but about the snake as a model consumer, eating only when it’s famished, and about consumption itself as a basic fact of human existence. The sequence amounts to something much more nuanced than a crudely stated critique of capitalism and rock and roll/show business. The cheerful Tulsa natives who have congregated to watch the destruction of the building (two of whom watched it go up in the early thirties) are a far, far cry from those in the noxious second-unit-gathered montages of mindless sports fans/political rally attendees/country-fair-goers that dotted the heavily editorialized landscape of late-sixties and early-seventies movies. They are there to have a good time, just like the girl at the concert who lets the music float her down an aisle and into the waiting arms of two male fans she may or may not know. Just like the hardworking musicians onstage. And the fans backstage. And Russell, laughing his goofy laugh and grabbing it all while he can. And, of course, the satisfied snake.

Will the groupies be sent away in the morning? Of course. Will the fans land back on earth after soaring into the stratosphere? Sure. But far from a monstrous egotist, the Russell we see in the film is an occasionally thorny but thoughtful artist with a keen awareness of the transitory nature of his fame and riches, in love with music and music-making. He is a showman, to be sure, but he is also communing with his audience, sharing the best of himself with them. As his percussionist Ambrose Campbell says, Russell’s popularity will one day fall, and someone else’s will rise. Another building will go up, and another will come down. And another baby chick will be eaten. This stretch of the movie carries the DNA of the whole cinematic poem.

A Poem Is a Naked Person is, finally, a reflection on what it is to be alive, told in the visual and aural and musical idioms of its time and place. It’s that big. It is about life as motion, just going, from day to day. It’s about searching, and sometimes going off on a wild tangent, picturing a phantom summit of fame or ultimate happiness to be conquered, just as the young roadies do with their aggressive “I’m gonna make it all the way to the top and nobody’s gonna stop me” incantations, just as the poor kid flipping out does as he bounces against the motel room walls and tries to roll his terrors away on the bed and over the floor. And it’s about the discovery that contentment resides in the motion itself, in the doing and the searching—a bird soaring higher and higher and never alighting (as Blank and Russell’s offscreen conversation keeps philosophically circling and never landing), the moon rising (as Russell sings Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), the water flowing, the painter painting, the fans dancing, the preacher preaching, and the musicians making such an abundance of joyful noise on and off the clock. Russell is not so much the center of the film as its quiet, insightful, bemused, and slightly sardonic connector, and this amounts to a just portrait of his position in the music world of his era, bringing together so many musical “families”—the loose, easy affiliations around Cocker, Delaney & Bonnie, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. In the film, Russell becomes a kind of good-humored Hermes, everywhere at once, symbolically uniting George Jones (signing autographs on fans’ T-shirts and singing a heart-stopping rendition of his 1965 song “Take Me”) and Mama Cass (who would be dead before the film was completed); Eric Andersen (recording a song with Russell on piano, for an album whose master tapes went missing in the Columbia vaults until 1990) and Campbell (Russell’s “spiritual adviser” and, per Fela Kuti, the father of modern Nigerian music); Tulsa Sound legends Carl Radle (on bass) and Chuck Blackwell (on drums) with gospel musician (and opening act) Patrick Henderson. Blank follows his subject’s lead, extending the gesture and including Willie Nelson and renowned fiddler Sweet Mary Egan (now Mary Hattersley), the Reverend Rayford T. Iglehart and Spooksville Museum proprietor Garland Middleton, the glass eater and the painter and his snake, the natives and the onlookers and the fans and the little girl who does a mean rendition of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” They are all swept, ever so gently, along with us, the viewers, into the grand, joyful communal enterprise of the film itself.