A Poem is a Naked Person is pretty far out, man. In the very loosest sense of the term a documentary biopic of Oklahoma musician Leon Russell, Les Blank’s long-lost film orbits the hirsute, enigmatic singer-songwriter onstage, in the studio and relaxing at home. However, in eschewing effusive talking heads and hagiography this is in no way an inspection of fame, riches and musical stardom. Instead Russell is the magnetic epicentre of a much broader contemplation on the nature of being, creation and self-truth at a time of peace and love.
Filmed between 1972 and 1974 but not released theatrically until now, it spins with the meditative regularity of a vinyl and crackles with the same rich grainy texture. Dusted down and spruced up by the director’s son, Harrod, after forty years of hibernation, A Poem is a Naked Person is a newly rediscovered treasure, a time capsule for a bygone era of artistry of all forms. A little like listening to an album of disparate influences and divergent messages where tracks initially appear to lack cohesion or commonality, it is not until the record comes to a halt do we reflect on a fusion of sound, imagery and head-scratching metaphor that somehow just works. A free flowing fluidity and elusiveness is evident from opening moments aside a river where a lady on a boat cries out to the camera, “We’re just pleasure-seekers.”
An interview with a cheeky old couple, still clearly madly in love, doesn’t do much for exposition but everyone’s having a good time and going along for the ride is effortless, the lack of direction even oddly comforting. The pacing continues at a casual stroll with the likes of Willie Nelson and George Jones, interactions with other musicians at gigs and jam sessions offering Russell the chance to flex his eclectic blend of bluegrass, soul and country; a momentary instance of friction with folk musician Eric Andersen the only suggestion of conflict throughout. The film regularly returns to one performance in front of a packed house. Positioned onstage above and among the band, the concert is filmed by a camera that faces outwards rather than placing the musicians on their all too familiar pedestal from below in the crowd.
As its cryptic title suggests, A Poem is a Naked Person does not content itself with just the music industry: images of a psychedelic swimming pool mural by artist Jim Franklin; a man downing a beer before cracking the glass with his teeth and chewing on the remains; the brutal depiction of a snake eating a live baby chicken; and people interviewed ahead of the destruction of a Tulsa apartment building all ruminate on destruction, rebirth and creation. Additional questions on capitalism, dreams and reality go further into the leftfield but this bewildering, kaleidoscopic journey on a magic carpet ride is well-worth experiencing.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens