Harrod Blank seems like an affable, naturally cheery fella. You’d think then that his dad, documentary filmmaker Les Blank, might be the same. But Harrod’s talking now about one thing that could sour Les’s mood amid any circumstance.
“If you brought up the film, he would become extremely aggravated and go sullen,” Harrod says. “He’d go into a real funk. This film was a big, big deal for him. It’s the film that got away.”
Any discussion of “the film”—the Voldemort-like project-that-must-not-be-named on Les Blank’s otherwise magical résumé—caused the director visible consternation. Early in the 1990s, I was present when Les screened it at the University of Oklahoma. What I recall, beyond the unnerving scene featuring a huge snake swallowing a live baby chick (read on), is Les speaking to the audience before the reels rolled. He had to explain why we were seeing it in a non-traditional venue such as this campus location, and why we got in for free. This was already 20 years on, and his frustration with the situation remained evident in exasperated explanations and still-stupefied expressions. Just turning on the projector that night—back on Oklahoma soil, no less—could have earned Les another threatening letter from the law firm of Kindly, Cease & Desist.
“This was his first feature film, and it was strong,” Harrod continues. “He knew it was a monumental work for him. His budding career as a filmmaker was getting to be well known, and it became a big deal that this didn’t get released. He showed it at nonprofit institutions for no money and no press—that was the deal—but he was unhappy about it. He was always nervous about showing it. He was worried about the circumstances. He was sued at least once to not be able to show the film. He always wanted to show it in a bigger way, but he never knew if he could. And he never got to.”
The hot potato here is A Poem Is a Naked Person, Blank’s near-legendary documentary about Leon Russell. It was shot between 1972 and 1974 on the road, at concerts, and, most notably, with Leon at home in Tulsa and at his then-new recording studio at Grand Lake. It’s a deeply flawed film, though still historically significant as the merest glimpse of Leon’s creative peak.
Les cut together what he thought was a colorful and provocative backstage glimpse of one seriously enigmatic artist and his coterie of carneys. Leon, however, disliked the film—which may be putting it mildly—and Leon had total control over the project. So he shelved it.
“Leon didn’t say he was disappointed. He didn’t say anything,” Harrod says. “He just turned his back on it.”
Rolling away the stone
This isn’t a sad story, mind you. Les Blank’s career wasn’t shut down before it started. He made dozens of superb films during the course of a celebrated career, many of them insightful examinations of other North American musicians (Chulas Fronteras about norteño music along the border, Always for Pleasure featuring numerous New Orleans music figureheads, films about Huey Lewis & the News and Ry Cooder) and some great docs about food (Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, and All in This Tea). Probably Les’s most acclaimed film is one that turns his lens on another filmmaker: Burden of Dreams (1982), about the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.
Nor is this tale an indictment of Leon. His career… well, Leon’s career slowed down later for completely different reasons (but thankfully has enjoyed a well-deserved revival this century). Leon’s response to Les’s documentary, though, is perfectly understandable. A Poem Is a Naked Person is one truly weird film—a dizzying, ham-fisted mash-up of good-weird and bad-weird. Renowned music critic Robert Christgau once described it as “an arty horror movie of a documentary,” and reviews across the decades have been sheepish, at best. While watching it, Leon’s decision to write it off as a bad idea, not to mention an unfortunate investment—by his own estimation, Leon spent more than $600,000 on its production—begins to seem completely reasonable.
Then again, Les’s film has merits as a cultural artifact, and the good news is that soon you will be able to watch it and judge for yourself. A Poem Is a Naked Person finally is getting an official, commercial release. This past summer, it screened at Tulsa’s Circle Cinema and at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Next March, a Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD package will be released.
The only bad news: Les Blank won’t be able to stand triumphantly at any of the screenings and finally tell a more relaxed tale of his film’s wild genesis and wacky results, nor will he finally get answers from Leon. Les died of cancer two years ago. Harrod, though, got the wheels of this reissue turning before that, and Les at least departed knowing that his last genie finally would escape the bottle.
It was Les’s dying wish.
By 1972, Leon was a fairly hot property. He was fresh off the road from two high-profile carnivals, Joe Cocker’s infamous Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and the Concert for Bangladesh (both of which had been documented successfully by filmmakers). Cocker had landed Leon’s “Delta Lady” on the charts, and Leon had just scored what would be his own biggest hit with “Tight Rope.”
Leon had moved back to Tulsa—into a big brick house in Maple Ridge—and built a recording studio at Grand Lake. An oft-repeated tale has Leon and a friend, both buzzing with psychedelics, in a boat on the lake when a lightning storm provided Leon divine inspiration to, a la Field of Dreams, build his studio then and there. “Yeah, that’s not true, but it’s a great story,” Leon told me in 1998. What is true is that the artists did come—from Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton to George Jones and George Harrison, Leon’s lake studio was a popular attraction for rock musicians for the next few years. Some actually recorded there; most of them just came, like Leon had, to get away from their more commodified existence.
Les Blank knew little to nothing about any of this. He wasn’t a fan of Leon, or even rock and roll generally. He was just happy that Denny Cordell, Leon’s manager and co-chief of the then-Tulsa-based Shelter Records, had decided to capture some of Leon’s psychedelic lightning in a bottle by commissioning a documentary. Les had just made The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins and seemed to be the It Boy for behind-the-music filmmaking. He was offered use of some of the new studio space at Grand Lake to edit another one of his films while he started shooting the documentary about Leon. This was work-for-hire, which meant Leon owned the end product—and controlled its production, too, though over the course of the next two years Leon didn’t insert himself much into the process other than occasionally wandering in front of Les’s lens. Les moved into a cabin at Leon’s lake compound and started shooting.
And shooting and shooting. Les took full advantage of his rock-star access for the next two years, piling up a lot of footage—of anything and everything. A Poem Is a Naked Person features a Willie Nelson concert at a Texas roadhouse, a rousing march with Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band, a bit of “Sweet” Mary Egan sawing at a fiddle on an outdoor stage, even a glimpse of Mama Cass playing a little tambourine in the wings. There are studio performances by George Jones and Eric Andersen, glimpses of Tulsa Sound icons from J.J. Cale to Carl Radle. One of the funniest performances in the film is on the porch of the Maple Ridge home, where a very young girl named Malissa Bates sings Hoyt Axton’s “Joy to the World,” making several older women visibly uncomfortable as she sings about making “sweet love to you.” There’s footage of a parachuting championship in Tahlequah (featuring a man long rumored to be the fugitive D.B. Cooper), of workmen building a wall at Leon’s home, of costumed dancers at the Armadillo World Head Quarters, of a particularly wired young dude flipping out in a hotel room.
Much of the film’s connective tissue is contrived Oklahoma color. We see a “goose grab” in Adair and a tractor pull in Afton. An old man named Garland Middleton details the history of the region’s “spook light” sightings. Les’s camera seems to love Ed Galloway’s totem pole near Foyil, and he shot footage of an Indian powwow. If the film nails the depiction of anything, it’s the swampy feeling of summer on a Green Country lake. Tanned local boys talk through thick drawls about skin diving, and hippies wander the woods naked. Water moccasins wriggle across the water’s surface, and the camera lingers on the lake at twilight while Leon sings Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
All fun and good, but where’s Leon?
That was Leon’s first question, too. A Poem Is a Naked Person not only doesn’t have Leon Russell in its title (which comes from a Bob Dylan quip), it doesn’t show him much within its frames.
After screening a final cut, Les received a letter from Cordell stating that Les had fulfilled his responsibilities as work-for-hire, and Cordell wished Les the best. The film was never released, and the project was never rebooted.
“If you look at it from Leon’s perspective—which I’ve come to understand more and more—to him it was a shocker that there was all this extraneous lagniappe that he wasn’t expecting,” says Harrod, 52, himself a filmmaker, from his California home. “It took him by surprise.”
Leon rarely mentioned the film again, except to his lawyers. Les was forbidden to show the film for profit, and screenings could not be advertised. If he dared trot out the reels, the showings had to be freebies. At such events, as mentioned, he’d routinely voice his frustration.
“Don’t ask me why Leon doesn’t like the film,” Les told the audience at a private screening of the film in 2006 in Silver Lake, California. “He never told me.”
Leon’s public statements about the film have been typically cryptic, but he’s finally spoken about it a few times this year. During a Q&A in July before a Los Angeles screening, Leon’s kvetching was surprisingly pedestrian (“If you’ve never watched yourself on film before, you want to go crawl into bed and stay there for a week”) and generic (“I thought I’d be in a movie and look like James Dean, and I ended up looking like Jimmy Dean”). In August, he told Tulsa’s KTUL that the film was “a triumph of style over content.” However, there seem to be three main complaints that stuck in Leon’s craw.
First, Leon complained in a recent interview with Rolling Stone that the film “looks more like a travelogue than a Leon movie.” He’s said before, too, that the film is more about Les Blank than Leon Russell. Both charges stick. Only occasionally does A Poem Is a Naked Person attempt to undress its title subject, to reveal anything particularly new and illuminating about a bold young artist in his prime.
But if we ask where Leon is in the film, we also must ask where he was during the filming. Was no one checking Les’s progress, viewing dailies, screening rough cuts? If the end product was a complete surprise, that’s on Leon.
That said, one wonders why Leon made no real attempt to re-cut the movie or reboot the project with someone else. The answer to that comes down, it seems, to personality conflicts. In the KTUL interview, Leon intimates that Les didn’t have much of a sense of humor. In that Rolling Stone interview, Leon adds that Les “was just kind of a jerk sometimes”—not an unheard-of comment about Les—hinting that more than creative differences thwarted this work’s commercial life.
“Les was getting on Leon’s nerves, no question,” Harrod says. “Les was hen-pecking Leon with questions, and Les was probably wearing out his welcome.”
No other solo documentary project ever materialized. He’s a pivotal figure in The Concert for Bangladesh and Mad Dogs & Englishmen. He figures prominently in the justly acclaimed documentary about L.A.’s great session musicians, The Wrecking Crew. None other than Cameron Crowe captured Leon—in his present-day full Colonel Sanders drag—for a documentary about The Union, the 2010 album recorded as a duo with Elton John.
Therein, though, the second complaint comes to light: Les’s film doesn’t put Leon front and center. The film’s detours from Leon understandably irked him. He particularly didn’t like the closing credits, featuring Willis Alan Ramsey singing a previously unheard song, “Naked at the Lake.” That tidbit of information itself is notable, given that Ramsey, as if taking mysticism cues from Leon himself, released a highly acclaimed self-titled album, also in ‘72—an album praised ever since as part of the bedrock of outlaw and alternative country—and to date (despite numerous hollow promises) has never released another one. Nonetheless, here’s the young Texas native at the end of Leon’s movie, another semi-known name that not only drifted his way to the lake but wrote a song about it. Plaid shirt, bushy hair, all cherubic features and a devilish grin—it’s a superb moment with another artist in his lost heyday.
“But Leon wasn’t keen on that at all,” Harrod says of Ramsey’s appearance.
As a compromise in the remastering of the film, Harrod added Leon’s performance of “A Satisfied Mind” after Ramsey’s Okie tune-noodling underneath the original credits, so the film fades out with Leon’s voice.
The circle of life
This gripe, though, about Leon not being the hub of Leon’s own movie would hold more water if the whole character of Leon Russell wasn’t so distributive. Leon as solo artist: not bad. Leon as ringleader: transformative. Leon’s singular genius has always thrived among a plurality. He had much sharper teeth with the Mad Dogs than he ever had as a lone wolf. Every joule of energy in the Bangladesh concert crackles because Leon is
basically its music director. Elton John condescendingly made out as if “The Union” was his bestowal of limelight on his old hero, but Leon’s the one who brought cred back to that sell-out. Leon’s power lies in fusing a group, in lifting everyone above their individual talents—sums greater than parts, etc—perhaps at the expense of his own stardom but to the benefit of what frequently becomes a life-altering performance.
From that perspective, A Poem Is a Naked Person quite accurately documents Leon as a character among his own ensemble. Even the performance footage shows Leon often not singing, not playing, but instead directing the band with his eyes, pacing the edge of the stage as if one with the crowd, intent on managing everyone but himself. The film’s concerts, studio jams, heady late-night conversations—they’re not about him as much as they simply depend on his presence. The norms of contemporary celebrity culture cast such selfless talent as a bad thing, but it’s a beautiful and all-too-rare gift.
The third complaint: that snake. Midway through the film, Les goes for a very film student-level commentary on the music business. Into a scene of Leon performing in Anaheim, Les intercuts several other scenes in a blatant attempt to draw out a metaphor. First, he brings in footage of an event he happened upon while kicking around Tulsa one afternoon: the 1973 implosion of the Bliss Hotel at Second and Boston. Second, the concert footage is spliced in between artist Jim Franklin’s constrictor snake being presented with a baby chick, which it encircles and soon slowly swallows whole. (Fifteen years later, Michael Moore would use virtually this same schtick in Roger & Me.) The sequence ends with footage of security and police—all rigorously costumed authority figures—firmly herding concertgoers out of the venue.
“Understand, I don’t think Les really liked the rock-and-roll world,” Harrod says. “He wasn’t into the rock-and-roll system of things… the off-balance tiers of power, the star positioned against the fans, the ego and all that stuff. That’s what he’s commenting on with the chick and the snake and the demise of the buildings. The song in that montage is ‘Tight Rope,’ which is all about fleeting fame and the rise of a star, that it’s not forever. Life isn’t forever, and all good things come to an end. That’s what this whole section’s about—the trajectory of fame that Leon was on. He became famous, very famous, during the making of this film. Then, lo and behold, after the film, for whatever reasons, Leon’s career took a bit of a hit. That’s what’s in that scene—and it’s backed up by the Nigerian drummer [Ambrose Campbell] later in the film who says there was somebody before Leon and there’ll be somebody after Leon, every culture has its cycle. Every rock performance has a beginning, a middle, and an end when the people go home. It’s a cycle of life.”
Back to the island
For this film, anyway, that cycle is coming back around. To finally resurrect it, though, Harrod had some diplomacy ahead.
“When Les was sick and pretty much dying of bladder cancer, he said he wanted to show the film one last time,” Harrod recalls. “So we set up a screening on the Pixar campus in Berkeley. I reached out to Leon and said, ‘Dear Leon, I want to let you know that Les is sick and dying, and I want to see if you’re willing to come to this screening.’ He wrote back the very next day—which never happens—saying, ‘Sorry, I can’t attend due to financial constraints, but I appreciate the invite and wish Les all the best.’ I read this to Dad, and he couldn’t believe I’d actually made contact with Leon.”
Inspired by the contact, Harrod began work on remastering A Poem Is a Naked Person. He didn’t have Leon’s permission to work on it; he just wanted to see how it would turn out. It turned out well. So he wrote Leon again.
“I said, ‘I was there on the lake with Les when I was 10, and I always idolized you. In fact, I drew drawings of you. I had Shelter [Records] stickers on my notebooks in school. You’re part of this film and you’re part of my family. Would you be open to letting this film out there?’ He responded, said he was open to talking about it. I sent him one of those drawings I’d done at age 10 with some Sharpies, a reproduction of the cover of ‘Leon Russell & the Shelter People.’ I think that struck a chord with him.”
Months later, Harrod boarded Leon’s tour bus after a show in Oakland. Leon was “super nice,” he says, and “seemed very pleased to observe us squirming for his approval.” Later, Harrod sent Leon a Blu-ray of the remastered film. Leon seemed further intrigued: “ ‘How’d you get this to look so good?’ he said.” Harrod thinks that’s the first positive thing Leon ever said about the movie.
In public, though, Leon was still poo-pooing the project. Asked in a 2011 Billboard magazine interview about the film, he said, “I paid for it, and I own it, but I didn’t care for it. I’m not sure what the purpose was—it’s not my idea of a documentary. It’s not supposed to be released, but one never knows.”
But before Les died Leon gave a verbal OK—after almost four decades—to release the movie. A year and a half later came an actual signature. The “Naked Person” finally would be revealed.
Now Harrod—busy with his own film projects, including a documentary about the Burning Man festival that he’s been shooting for 22 years—finds himself hanging around Leon again, visiting five cities this summer to premiere the documentary.
“We’re unlikely characters to be together,” Harrod says. “I’ve enjoyed seeing him blossom like a flower in slow motion, seeing him open up regarding this film to people, plus his past and his songwriting. The night before the Q&A [in L.A.] a woman came up to me and said, ‘I want to ask you a very important question: Could you tell me if the man who wrote the beautiful ‘A Song for You’… was it his idea to have that snake eating the baby chick?’ I said Leon had nothing to do with it, and she burst out, ‘Oh, thank you!’ I told Leon that the next day. He said, ‘See, I told you.’ ”
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015.