By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
Les Blank (Burden of Dreams) started shooting A Poem is a Naked Person in 1972 and completed it in 1974, but the film was held up for decades by legal issues, and is only now getting a proper theatrical release. Although ostensibly a behind-the-scenes/concert documentary about chicken-fried rock star Leon Russell building a recording studio in his native Oklahoma, Blank instead offers wave after wave of Vernon, Florida-esque local color, spending more time in the picking parlors and the pool halls and the “floating motel cabins” than he does with Russell. It’s a funky, weird, hazy, and often hilarious ramble, mixing footage of Russell’s rollicking live shows and recording sessions with ethnographic portraits of Oklahoma oddballs, like the parachute instructor who chugs a beer and proceeds to eat the entire glass, or the small-town main street parade that features a horrifying goose-throwing game, or the crowds who eagerly gather in downtown Tulsa to watch their city crumble in a controlled explosion. Blank makes no attempt to “get to know” Russell, but the film’s loosely knit Dust Bowl melting pot ideology seems to perfectly align with Russell’s genre-blurring music and Zen-grizzle spaceman personality. Russell sprawls across the line between traditionalist and iconoclast, equally at home with hippie freaks and high society and gospel choirs and Oklahoma good ol’ boys, and both his life and his music connect a lot of disparate dots (my favorite example: the elderly woman who tells her husband he looks “awful cute” with his Leon Russell-inspired long white hair). A Poem is a Naked Person perfectly captures a particular time not just in America, but in American music, to the point that it feels like a road show rehearsal for Nashville.