A Poem Is a Naked Person d. Les Blank (1974) The Criterion Collection Spine: #805 Blu-ray Release Date: March 29, 2016 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.
In November 2014, The Criterion Collection released a wonderful boxset, Les Blank: Always for Pleasure, that contained fourteen of Blank’s documentaries. Prior to immersing myself in that release, I was only vaguely aware of Blank’s work, which I found to be so lovely as it focused on the musical and culinary bonds of small communities. By letting his camera go wherever it wants, honing in on colorful people or dusty streets or a communal meal, Blank captures life’s rhythms. This week, The Criterion Collection follows up that boxset with a release of A Poem Is a Naked Person, Les Blank’s 1972 documentary about musician Leon Russell.
Though he was only 30 years old when this documentary project began in 1972, Russell had been an active musician for over fifteen years, performing in nightclubs around Tulsa, Oklahoma when he was just fourteen. During the 1960s he was a creative presence, whether because he was playing backup or helping write, in some of the decade’s biggest hits. Consequently, he’s well established as this documentary begins.
When the documentary begins, we think we might get some of this back story, starting with Russell’s roots. We land in Oklahoma and meet an older couple talking about how much they admire Russell’s talents. The wife even claims her husband is growing out his hair so that he can be more like Russell, something she thinks is very attractive, saying she’s falling in love with her husband all over again.
However, rather than give us a back story, Blank throws exposition out the window (as he does beautifully in many of his other documentaries). He looks at the homegrown roots, but doesn’t delve into the past. Instead, Blank throws us into the moments from 1972 to 1974, showing us the world of Leon Russell by setting us down in the center and letting us form our own connections as we meet, with no real introductions, the various friends, colleagues, and crowds around Russell at this particular moment in his career. By doing this, we get a sense of the Tulsa music scene, which Russell was making famous.
A Poem Is a Naked Person, then, is about the circle around Russell from 1972 to 1974. We witness live performances from New Orleans and Anaheim as well as a recording session for the album Hank Wilson’s Back.
It’s an interesting bubble, for sure, one I’m happy to see on screen without having to dwell inside it for long. Blank’s hands-free method works beautifully to showcase the carefree feel these folks were feeling at the time. For example, not only do we witness the recording sessions, but also a man painting a swimming pool while expounding on letting your kids just be artists and an acid trip.
That Blank’s method reflects this proclivity to experiment and indulge — and also adds its own strange poetry, like a segment edited in throughout where a chick is placed in a snake’s aquarium and finally consumed — could be a big hard to stomach for some. But, again, Blank is not trying to defend or explain anything explicitly. He merely opens the door and let’s us enter these intimate chambers, something Russell himself didn’t appreciate at the time, but more on this below. Today, over forty years later, we can appreciate Blank’s poetry, which to me remains the single greatest aspect of this film, the hook that will bring me back as I try to understand all that the filmmaker was saying while roaming around with a rock star for two years.
The Criterion Collection Edition: Part of the fascinating story of this film is not about Leon Russell at all but rather about the history of the film, which was only first screened publicly in 2015 once Les Blank’s son Harrod Blank was able to untangle all of the legal messes, many created by Russell himself. Sadly, this was only after Les Blank died, and because he shows up in this release it’s fair to say that Russell has come around to a film he didn’t, apparently, like that much at first.
- Harrod Blank and Leon Russell: This is a 26:40-minute conversation between Harrod Blank and Leon Russell. Harrod was only ten years old when the documentary was being made, but he remembers it well and reminisces on his memories of being with Russell at the time. The two talk about the film itself and that time period, but also about the years between 1974 and 2015 when the film was essentially unavailable.
- Les Blank: Though not publicly screened until 2015, the film was screened at Pixar Animation studios in 2013, with Blank in attendance just a few weeks before he died. This is a 8:40-minute excerpt of Blank’s discussions with his family and friends who attended.
- A Film’s Forty-Year Journey: The Making of “A Poem Is a Naked Person”: This is a 36:46-minute documentary produced for The Criterion Collection in 2015.
- Out in the Woods: This supplement is a very personal reflection from Maureen Gosling, the sound recordist and assistant editor of the film. During the two years of filming, Gosling recorded her own Super 8 footage. Bits of that footage are shown here, along with personal letters she was writing to family at the time.
- The set ends with three trailers from Janus’s tour of the film.
- With the disc we get an insert with an essay, “I Shall Be Released,” by Kent Jones.