If you can hum “A Song for You,” “Tightrope” or “Superstar,” you already know more about Leon Russell than you’d learn from watching A Poem is a Naked Person. This free-form documentary has been kept out of distribution since it was completed in 1974 due to creative differences between Russell and director Les Blank, who chose to focus less on the musician and more on the crazy quilt of people surrounding him – including the director himself. Following Blank’s death in 2013, Russell relented, and now the film is making the rounds of art houses, including the Detroit Film Theater at the DIA.
Russell was in demand as a session pianist and arranger before he became better known as a songwriter and Joe Cocker’s long-haired bandleader for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen concerts in 1970. In the 1960s, he played behind everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Herb Alpert to the Rolling Stones. Working for Phil Spector, he arranged Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” He toured with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends; one such Friend, George Harrison, called him into service to manage the superstar line up playing the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Around that time Russell released his first solo album, featuring “A Song for You” – which is as lovely a love song as ever was written.
By the time Blank showed up in Oklahoma in 1972 with his cameras, Russell had founded the Shelter recording label and was building a studio in rural Tulsa to give a variety of musicians a place to play and develop. But instead of putting Russell center stage in his own documentary – a movie he spent $660,000 to produce – Blank looped in whatever image, sound or message he found interesting (undoubtedly made all the more interesting thanks to the huge quantities of drugs they must have ingested, if the ruby-red eyeballs and twitchy freak outs of Russell’s bandmates are any indication).
For a fan like me who’s eager to see Russell performing in his prime as a headliner rather than a band leader, the film is a frustrating experience. It captures a few moments of musical genius, like clips of Russell’s concert performances and studio sessions for his Hank Wilson’s Back country album, including George Jones singing a heartbreaking solo version of “Take Me.” But Blunt’s penchant for the bizarre overwhelms the impact of the music and the story of the star. In addition to a lot of b-roll of the (often toothless) denizens of Tulsa, the director wastes valuable screen time in order to pontificate about art and capitalism, demonstrated by a boa constrictor killing and swallowing a chick (you read that correctly). You can understand why Russell was less than happy.
Yet it’s not a total loss. Watching Russell play – gray-eyed and steel-haired, his elegant fingers rolling from gospel to honky-tonk to rock and roll – is transporting. It’s worth the 90 minutes of drug-soaked oddness just to see that.
See you on the flip side …
Bonus Tom Petty trivia! In 1974, Petty and his Mudcrutch bandmates traveled from Florida to Los Angeles with a demo in hand. London Records offered them a record deal the first day they arrived, thanks to a mix of talent and beginner’s luck. Thrilled by the prospect, they went back home to sell everything they owned to relocate. While in rehearsal, they got a call from Leon Russell’s producing partner Denny Cordell, who convinced them to stop in Tulsa on their way to LA to meet him at the studio at Shelter Records. They spent the night, did a session in the studio and decided to sign with Shelter instead … which resulted in the first two albums Petty recorded with the Heartbreakers.