Les Blank considered this free-form feature documentary about beloved singer-songwriter Leon Russell, filmed between 1972 and 1974, to be one of his greatest accomplishments. Yet it has not been released until now. Hired by Russell to film him at his recording studio in northeast Oklahoma, Blank ended up constructing a unique, intimate portrait of a musician and his environment. Made up of mesmerizing scenes of Russell and his band performing, both in concert and in the studio, as well as off-the-cuff moments behind the scenes, this singular film—which also features performances by Willie Nelson and George Jones—has attained legendary status over the years. It’s a work of rough beauty that serves as testament to Blank’s cinematic daring and Russell’s immense musical talents.
I'd be surprised if you've heard of this experimental documentary. Back in 1972, the excellent filmmaker, Les Blank who is known for his incredible music documentaries, feature films, and work with Werner Herzog, attempted to make a documentary on the fascinating musician Leon Russell. Leon Russell has a plethora of albums and has worked with and produced music for a ton of super-famous musicians, including Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Frank Sinatra, and many more.
But the reason, you probably hadn't heard of this film is that Leon Russell and Les Blank had a strained relationship to say the least, and Leon didn't quite like the film and thus held onto it and kept it from the public up until 2015. Sure there were some private screenings here and there over the years with Les Blank in attendance, but that's it. After Les died a few years ago, his son tracked down Russell and convinced him to finally release the film. But why would Leon not want this film out there for so long? Well, that's an interesting question, and going by the film itself, it's easy to tell why Leon would think this way.
This is not a normal documentary where the camera focuses on the subject itself with interviews and concert footage. The truth is that Russell didn't really give Les any interviews per se in the film, which was filmed over two years. Russell didn't even seem that into it as both Les and Leon argued about everything. So, Les, being the filmmaker he is, started filming the people surrounding Leon, including other musicians, friends, and neighbors, in addition to some very surreal imagery that he edited into a very poetic look into the life of this talented, yet strange musician. It's funny, because while this is supposed to be a film that follows Leon Russell, it more or less doesn't strictly follow him around. The subject here doesn't even show up on screen until several minutes into the film.
We do get to see Russell working with a young Willie Nelson, Eric Andersen, George Jones, and a few others, along with some concert footage, but there is almost never any interview footage or anyone really talking about Russell. It's more or less these people just working on music or complaining about making the documentary that we see now. Interspersed between key moments of the film are the lives of Russell's friends, neighbors, colleagues, and other musicians, who don't necessarily talk about Russell himself, but rather about the music. This is comical, because this is a Leon Russell documentary, where it doesn't seem to be all about Leon Russell.
In addition to this, there are some very odd scenes that Blank filmed, most likely due to Russell not really participating in the documentary all that much, which include the demolition of a building and its aftermath of people picking up the pieces to take home that is spliced in with concert footage of Russell and his fans asking for autographs and pictures. It's quite brilliant really. There is also a scene or two where a snake is devouring a baby chicken, spliced in with other footage of Russell, as if to say obvious about how Russell is handling his colleagues. In other bizarre moments, there seems to be people throwing geese off of a truck and someone trying to actually eat glass.
There's no rhyme or reason to it at first glance, but after you watch this twice, you begin to see just how intelligent Les Blank was, including these odd scenes in this film. It's like nature imitating art, imitating the life of Leon Russell. There's nothing else like this around, and gives you a big appreciation for both Russell and Blank.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘A Poem Is a Naked Person’ comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc and is Region A locked from Criterion. There is a booklet that contains information about the transfer, cast, and crew, as well as an essay. The disc is housed in a hard, clear plastic case with spine #805.
'A Poem Is a Naked Person' comes with a 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet, this is a new digital transfer that was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the original 16mm print. This early 70's footage looks surprisingly very good here, as Criterion has done a great job in restoring this image. The picture as a whole doesn't look like a 2016 sci-fi film in terms of clarity, but there is some great depth and vivid detail to notice throughout.
Closeups reveal individual hairs on the beards of everyone involved and each slippery scale on the snake we see from time to time. Colors are well-balanced and pop for the most part as well. Wider shots looks impressive throughout as well in both concert footage and hanging around the studio. There is still some good grain and grime throughout, but it all adds to the experience of this film. There was still some minor damage to the print as well, but it shows well for some reason. There were no other issues with the video presentation, as the black levels were deep and the skin tones were natural.
This release comes with a LPCM mono mix, and according to the Criterion booklet, it was remastered at 24-bit from a 16mm monaural mixed magnetic stripe track. Tons of clicks, pops, cracks, hiss, and hum were manually removed. I wish this had a 5.1 option, so that we could be fully immersed in the concert sequences to have a fuller sound, but the mono mix here serves up well, despite some small issues.
These were issues from the source and how it was recorded back in the early 70s I imagine. There are certain scenes that sound better than others, where some sound a little muddled here and there. Some of the concert footage seems soft as well, but again, I think this is a source issue, rather than a transfer issue. When these issues are not present, things sound full with the dialogue coming in crystal clear.
A Weird Blessing: A Conversation with Harrod Blank and Leon Russell (HD, 27 Mins.) - This is a brand new interview with Leon Russell himself and Les Blank's son Harrod, who was the one who convinced Russell to finally release this film. The two discuss the reasoning for keeping the film locked up, memories of the shoot, and why now, the film is being released.
Les Blank (HD, 9 Mins.) - This was recorded a few weeks before Blank's death a few years ago, as he introduces the film to a secret small screening, talking about filming the movie and working with Russell.
A Film's Forty-Year Journey: The Making of 'A Poem Is a Naked Person' (HD, 37 Mins.) - This is a great extra that has Harrod Blank (Les's son), the sound recordist and editor, artist Jim Franklin, and a couple others, discussing what it was like during the two year production of the film. It's quite funny to hear them talk about the tension on set, as well as how many times Les went back to edit.
'Out of the Woods' (HD, 13 Mins.) - This is a cool little documentary about the editor and sound recordist mentioned above, about her two year stint working on the film. It's quite funny and endearing.
Trailers (HD, 6 Mins.) - There are three trailers for the film.
Criterion Booklet - Here is a foldout booklet with cast and crew information, as well as about the transfer, and an essay by Kent Jones.
'A Poem Is a Naked Person' is one of those rare films that is actually an experience, because you've never seen anything like it, and may not ever again. Never have I seen a music documentary about a musician, where the film doesn't actually contain a whole lot of its subject. Luckily for us, Les Blank knew exactly what to do in this instance when he had a less than stellar time with Leon Russell. The results are beautiful, funny, and like the title suggests - poetic. Criterion has knocked it out of the park with this release with some excellent extras, and a great video and audio presentation. This one comes highly recommended!