'A Poem is a Naked Person': SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW
A shaggy music doc perfectly in tune with its milieu

Come hang with Leon Russell's posse in a rediscovered Les Blank doc

An underacknowledged '70s star whose influence spreads from Outlaw Country all the way to the Pixies, Leon Russell enjoyed something of a revival after The Union, his 2010 collaboration with Elton John. Now comes A Poem is a Naked Person, a Les Blank doc shot at the height of Russell's fame but never properly released. A time capsule capturing the flavor of early-'70s bohemian life in Oklahoma and Texas, it pairs ample concert and studio footage with seemingly unrelated local color like interviews with onlookers at a building demolition in Tulsa. Offbeat in the ways one expects and hopes for in a Blank film, the doc should be celebrated in a planned Criterion DVD release and will attract small crowds in special theatrical bookings.

Though it does follow Russell to plenty of concerts (and squeezes in a delightful clip of Willie Nelson playing for two-steppers at Central Texas's venerable Floore's Country Store), the film shares with its contemporary Heartworn Highways a desire to make us part of the scene. We hang out backstage and in musicians' homes, wandering into the middle of drunken or stoned conversations whose participants are quite sure of their views; we meet the neighbors, like the elderly folks who were put off at first when Russell started building a lakeside studio next door, but now like him so much that the husband is growing his hair long.

We spend some time in that studio, welcoming a very young-looking George Jones and watching as Eric Andersen takes offense that Russell doesn't remember his name. But Blank is equally attracted to its environs, offering long sunsets and quaint shoreline vistas accompanied by "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Austin poster artist Jim Franklin gets plenty of screen time, painting a psychedelic mural in a drained pool and (ick!) waxing philosophical as he feeds a cute little chick to a ravenous snake.

As for the music, the performances we see tend toward the shambling and engagingly ragged. The Russell-penned standard "A Song for You" is a highlight, naturally. But given the movie's ambulatory, take-it-all-in vibe, it's fitting to close with an excellent in-studio rendition of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene."


Production company: Skyhill Films

Director-Director of photography-Editor: Les Blank

Producers: Leon Russell, Denny Cordell

Executive producers: Harrod Blank


No rating, 89 minutes