Leon Russell doc fills in a big Blank

Leon Russell from "A Poem Is a Naked Person"

Leon Russell from “A Poem Is a Naked Person”

In 1972, when he was one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, Leon Russell hired up-and-coming filmmaker Les Blank to shadow him at home in Oklahoma and on the road for a full-length documentary. Russell had loved Blank films on bluesmen- The Gospel According To Lightnin’ Hopkins (1969) and A Life Well Spent Life (1971) about Mance Lipscomb- and envisioned the same cinema verite used to portray his own life.

But maybe Blank’s camera unveiled more truth than Russell was comfortable with. Blank’s Leon doc A Poem Is a Naked Person (1974) has never been officially released, though there have been rare and random screenings in hotel rooms and arthouses where the marquee said 400 Blows. On Monday at 9:30 p.m. at the ZACH Theater, A Poem Is a Naked Person (whose title comes from a Bob Dylan quote) will have its official world premiere as part of SXSW.

“Leon is the only person who knows for sure why the film didn’t come out,” says Harrod Blank, whose father Les died in 2013. “And he doesn’t like to talk about it. I think it could have been mutual thing. Les didn’t always communicate well. And he did not compromise. He considered (the Leon doc) one of his best films and so he took it personal.”

When his father was in the hospital, dying of bladder cancer, Harrod Blank tried to reach Leon, but couldn’t find a contact. Then he messaged Russell on Facebook and was surprised to get a reply. Four decades had passed and Leon was ready to talk about A Poem being released. Sadly, Les Blank succumbed just 11 months after being diagnosed, before the deal was finalized. Janus Films bought distribution rights and will give the doc (which also features Austin artist Jim Franklin) a limited release in the summer. Next year, Criterion will put out A Poem on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Besides lotsa Leon, the film includes musical appearances by George Jones, Willie Nelson (singing “Good Hearted Woman” at Floores Country Store) and Sweet Mary Egan fiddling on “Orange Blossom Special.” Willie has acknowledged Russell as a major influence in his decision to go outlaw and grow out his hair and beard. They’re still very close.

“Les focused a lot on the periphery, shooting what struck his fancy,” says Harrod, who’s made documentaries about art cars and such, but now handles his father’s legacy fulltime. The Russell doc, as evidenced by the trailer, is marked by weird juxtapositions- buildings imploding, snakes eating chickens etc. But it’s also chock full of Blank trademarks- downhome cooking and real-to-the bone music.

“This film is unlike any musician documentary you’ve ever seen,” says Harrod Blank. “It’s Leon Russell in his heyday, and it’s Les at the top of his game. Plus, some very unique editing.”

There is no more overlooked time and place for popular music than Oklahoma in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when former Phil Spector session pianist Leon Russell took himself back to Tulsa and lead a gang of like-minded musical souls to mix gospel and country with rock and roll. They created a sound they would bring to the world as Joe’s Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Delaney and Bonnie’s Friends. Exile On Main Street was really just the Rolling Stones making a Tulsa record.

Where did that groove come from? Maybe that’s the secret Leon’s been trying to hide for 40 years.

A Poem Is a Naked Person also screens Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. at the Paramount and Thursday (3/19) at 5:15 p.m. at the Marchesa.


  • Kevin Mathieu

    The best documentary I’ve ever seen. It has so many incredible levels of symbolism and more about life that it will simply stun you and take away your breath. Do not miss your chance to see it.