A Poem Is a Great Portrait of '70s Weirdness

Whiskery and restless, grooving and grotesque, the documentarian Les Blank's long-suppressed film A Poem Is a Naked Person plays like your memories of some mad, stoned last-century summer. Commissioned by the boogie-woogie piano bluesman Leon Russell, who is more this roaming doc's fitful center of gravity than its star, A Poem immerses us in the woozy particulars of Russell's life and music in 1974—and even more than that it immerses us in the world Russell came from. Scenes of the construction of Russell's recording-studio complex on Oklahoma's Grand Lake o' the Cherokees quickly become about the lake itself, how the sunlight butters and dances across its surface, or about Oklahomans getting a load of the Russell carnival. “The first time I saw Leon, I like to come unglued,” one senior citizen tells us­­—but then she dishes that her husband, inspired by Russell's down-home Saruman look, has only gotten cuter since he started growing his hair out.

Then we watch painter Jim Franklin work up a lavish undersea mural on the concrete walls of a swimming pool, but only after seeing him trap and jar several sun-baked scorpions. Later, Franklin feeds a baby chick to Chula, his boa constrictor, while holding forth on the idea that snakes are smarter, more honest consumers of resources than humans. Blank, who edited the film himself, cuts from the chick's orange-pink foot, sticking out of the snake's mouth to the demolition of Tulsa's Bliss Hotel to security backstage at a Russell show telling the camera crew they're in a restricted area.

There's lots of talk, sometimes from the cranky and hilarious Russell, who in one sharp scene toys with the hurt feelings of singer/songwriter Eric Andersen. (Andersen gets annoyed that the cameraman blocked him as he entered the recording studio.) But the vibe is mostly cheery, especially in the studio. Russell was working on his first country album, Hank Wilson's Back, and the film treats us to superb performances of “Goodnight Irene,” “Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms” and a pair of Hank Williams songs. George Jones turns up early to be gaped at by the Russell crew, as well as to give you the whiskey shivers when he sings “Take Me”; later, Blank shows us a pre-beard Willie Nelson rocking a roadhouse with “Good Hearted Woman,” his band sounding pretty much as they do today.

Russell himself kiboshed the release of this film for 40 years, even as Blank (Burden of Dreams, Always for Pleasure), one of our great documentarians, became increasingly convinced A Poem might be a masterpiece. (The title comes from Bob Dylan's free-verse liner notes to Bringing It All Back Home.) Since there's little drama or narrative, Russell's intransigence supplied me with much to ponder during the occasional moments when the footage fails to fascinate. (Mostly, for me, this came during Russell's own concert performances, which are strong but extended.) What might Russell have objected to? The revealing sequence in which Blank cut from Russell's own band, vamping as its leader hollers, to a spirited black preacher, shouting his joy to a rapturous congregation? And then back to Nelson's band, with Sweet Mary Egan seeming to bend space-time fiddling on “The Orange Blossom Special”? Just as he studies the waters in Russell's lake, Blank examines the tributaries that feed Russell's music—did the comparisons sting?

For all that, what lingers after A Poem—what I can't wait to see again, when Criterion releases the Blu-ray—are the regular folks, often Oklahomans, who expose themselves, in front of Blank's camera, as being just as odd as Russell's musician and artist friends. There's the family that never misses a building's destruction, and, unforgettably, the World Parachuting Championship representative who isn't satisfied with a toast until he has actually eaten his glass. Only a country this nuts could create a Russell—or a Blank.

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