Les Blank‘s film about Leon Russell has just screened at the Melbourne Internatioanl Festival. Roy Trakin delivers his verdict.
A Poem Is a Naked Person (Janus Films)
The late, idiosyncratic, quintessential indie documentary filmmaker Les Blank, who passed away in 2013, has turned his attention to such subjects as Werner Herzog, Dizzy Gillespie, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ry Cooder, New Orleans, norteno music, cajun and garlic, sporting such evocative titles as God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, In Heaven There Is No Beer? and the self-explanatory Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.
This lyrical, poetic film about Leon Russell, made in 1974 with the artist and his then-manager Denny Cordell, captures its subject, like Blank usually did, in his native environment, in this case, the backwoods of Oklahoma, at the height of his artistic powers, interspersing performance footage from a local honky-tonk in the process.
The movie remained unreleased until recently, when Russell agreed to let it come out through Janus Films, who restored it and is now distributing it to selected markets.
The top-hatted, pot-bellied, long-haired, bearded Russell, just a few years removed from his starring role in Mad Dogs and Englishmen, is a bemused presence, serving as a jumping-off point for Blank’s stream-of-consciousness exploration of the local culture, which includes the implosion of a building in downtown Tulsa, a literal goose chase through the streets, a snake devouring a live chicken and a man with a skydiving operation downing a beer and literally chewing the glass.
It’s a typically rambling Blank travelogue that Russell — in an after-show Q&A moderated by T Bone Burnett, with Les’ son Harrod, who has tirelessly worked to get the film released, and its editor Maureen Gosling — declared was “more style than substance” as the reason for preventing it from coming out until now… along with the fact, he “feels like dying” when he sees himself on screen.
There are performances of such classics as “Tightrope,” “Shootout on the Plantation,” “A Song for You,” which he launches into only after cleaning up a paper plate with baked beans on his piano top, an appearance playing for a local wedding and cameos from a young George Jones, a beardless Willie Nelson, a clueless Eric Anderson (who irks Leon when he guesses the then 30-year-old is over 40), fiddle player Sweet Mary Egan, session vets David Briggs and Charlie McCoy, even a cameo from Russell’s soon-to-be-wife gospel singer Mary McCreary, doing a warbling, helium-voiced falsetto.
Russell is typically cantankerous and dry-humored during the after-show discussion, warning Burnett, “Don’t touch me,” when he gets too close, admonishing a member of the audience who wants a hug for his birthday, and jokingly referring to then-Asylum Records head David Geffen as “that booking agent.”
Blank’s movie is more than just a Leon Russell documentary, it’s a glimpse into a long-gone time and place, where hippies and gap-toothed hillbillies mingled easily among a backdrop of rock’s very roots in blues, country, R&B, soul and gospel, a melting pot that fit the documentary filmmaker’s “Always For Pleasure” aesthetic to a T.