A Poem Is a Naked Person

 

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A legendary music documentary from 1974 gets a belated theatrical release.

 
Poem is a Naked Person, A

 

The late Les Blank (1935-2013) is probably best known to film enthusiasts today for his 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams which recorded the shooting of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog. Nevertheless, if one considers his work overall what emerges most deeply is his absorption with music and musicians. It was that aspect which led singer-songwriter Leon Russell to approach Blank as the most appropriate director to make a film about him and between 1972 and 1974 Blank shot nearly sixty hours of 16mm. footage. This yielded the original print of A Poem Is a Naked Person which lasted just over 100 minutes, but by 2011 Blank had reduced it to the 90 minutes to be found in the restoration now issued. Originally, Russell had had doubts about the film that Blank had delivered and it was only after Les Blank’s death and an approach by his son that he agreed to a theatrical release, one that has led to this film being widely acclaimed.

 

The main location for the shoot was Russell’s recording studio newly built in Oklahoma where, as we see, visiting performers included George Jones and Willie Nelson. Russell, then in his early thirties, was in his prime and those who seek out this film for love of his music will be handsomely rewarded. But, for others such as myself, the movie plays as a veritable time capsule on a broader scale. Late on we find band member Ambrose Campbell speaking of each generation having its own mode of expression best captured by artists who put their true selves into their art. However, Blank’s quirky approach brings back the early 1970s not only in the music but in the outlook, manner and appearance of the people. That is relevant to the musicians performing out of a need to express themselves rather than for financial gain, but it applies no less to visitors like the painter Jim Franklin and to locals (comments that many would have cut out as insufficiently relevant are often retained, Blank being his own editor).

 

The music is handled intimately in close-ups even though Blank opts to accompany a couple of songs with abstract images, but it is apparent that he was also looking to capture a wider picture. Thus performance footage of a relatively standard kind blends with such varied material as the demolition by explosives of the Bliss Hotel in Tulsa, a parachutist eating broken glass and comments on the appetite of a boa constrictor. The filming style adopted is itself a further reflection of the period but, given that the film eschews any commentary and offers limited information about the featured musicians, it is perhaps inevitable that it lacks any real sense of shape or structure and that is the film’s major weakness. But, as Blank always intended, it is distinctive and when viewed now it undoubtedly fascinates as a period piece being a portrait of an age long gone. As for the title, I am told that it is taken from words written by Bob Dylan.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring: Leon Russell, Jim Franklin, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Ambrose Campbell, Willis Alan Ramsey, Eric Andersen, Charlie McCoy, Mary Egan, Bill Mullins.

 

Dir Les Blank, Pro Denny Cordell and Leon Russell, Written by Les Blank, Ph Les Blank (with Maureen Gosling), Ed Les Blank (with Maureen Gosling).

 
Les Blank Films/Skyhill Films-Contemporary Films.
90 mins. USA. 1974. Rel: 8 July 2016. Cert. 15.