A Poem is a Naked Person — Film Review
A Poem is a Naked Person
Directed by Les Blank
This is not a documentary despite the film’s pretensions. This is a video scrapbook or an upscale home movie. The video clips that have been strung together in this are pretty good quality. The camera crew that shot them was excellent. The editing and the conceptualization are amateurish, but each small bit is interesting in itself and the music selections are outstanding. This film, despite its many limitations, takes hold of you and doesn’t let go. It is carried strictly by the power of the subject matter and the quality of the music — and there is a lot of music, and a great variety of music. All the time I was watching the film I was trying to figure out when it was shot. I recognized a brief cameo of Cass Elliot, so I knew it had to be not later than the early 1970s. It was actually shot by Les Blank in 1972-1974. (This is not presented in the film. I had to look it up.) Most of it was shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, maybe some of it in Louisiana, I’m not sure. This film is not a presentation of the facts. It is a raw, informal portrait of Leon Russell from his peak years as a singer and performer. The title of the film is a quote from Bob Dylan’s liner notes to his album Bringing It All Back Home (1965).
There are a couple of things this film does well. The presentation of Leon Russell as a singer, pianist, and performer, work. I was impressed with what an excellent pianist he is. There is a wedding scene where he plays Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” from Lohengrin and Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” unaccompanied on the piano. I believe they were his own arrangements very sensitively performed. He has a very commanding presence on stage. In front of an audience he was comfortable and unquestionably in charge. I could also feel a hard, driving ambition in him that was very disciplined and insistent on excellence. Off stage he was casual and relaxed. He seemed to tolerate bozos well and there seemed to be a lot of them around him. But when it came to music and performing before an audience, he took it very seriously, and he must have been demanding of his band mates. The film did not make a point of this, but I surmised it from the quality of the performances and his demeanor on stage.
The film gives one a good feel for the culture of Oklahoma and the various musical influences absorbed by Leon Russell from middle America and the South. There is a shot of some rollicking gospel in a black church, Sweet Mary Egan on unaccompanied fiddle, band member Charlie McCoy on harmonica, young Malissa Bates singing Hoyt Axton’s “Joy to the World” unaccompanied, a very young Willie Nelson doing “Good Hearted Woman,” some native Americans in traditional dress dancing to their native drum music. The film is rich in the musical culture of the American heartland.
One also gets a feel for the culture and temperament of the people of Oklahoma: provincial, unsophisticated, simple and straight ahead. There is a clip of a precision parachute jumping competition, another of a controlled demolition of a building in downtown Tulsa, another of a man in a small boat catching a quite large catfish. Some things you probably couldn’t get away with today, like feeding a small chick to a boa constrictor and watching him kill it and eat it before your eyes. The man who guzzles down a glass of beer and then bites off the edge of the glass with his teeth and chews it up and swallows it. That may represent the culture and mentality of the people of Oklahoma, but Leon Russell is a couple of pegs above that.
He is comfortable in that provincial backwater. It has molded him and shaped him and he has incorporated its varied influences into his own style, and the people see him as one of their own. But he is able to move beyond that world that gave him birth. He knows of a bigger world beyond the confines of Oklahoma and he wants to be part of it and be successful in it. While Leon Russell can fit in with those unvarnished yokels, he is not really one of them. His mind, his taste, his skill, and his ambition reach far beyond his roots, but he does not repudiate his background, rather he embraces it and embodies it and forges from it a very appealing, unique personal style. The film does give you that much, although there is much more you will wish it had done. It is an excellent and interesting introduction to the music and the person of Leon Russell.