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Sleeper of the Week: ‘A Poem Is a Naked Person’

Sleeper of the Week: 'A Poem Is a Naked Person'

Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

“A Poem Is a Naked Person”
Dir: Les Blank
Criticwire Average: B+

Filmed between 1972 and 1974, acclaimed documentarian Les Blank filmed a documentary about legendary musician and songwriter Leon Russell entitled “A Poem Is a Naked Person.” Blank’s documentary wasn’t a traditional rock doc, nor was it a hagiography, but instead a digressive depiction of Russell and his process, the staying power American traditional music, the Oklahoma landscape, and more. Needless to say, Russell and his then-business partner Denny Cordell, who largely produced Blank’s film, were unhappy with the finished product, and it remained unreleased for forty years. Blank unfortunately died two years ago, but his son Harrod has spent years trying to clear the music so that “A Poem Is a Naked Person” can finally be publicly screened. “A Poem Is a Naked Person” premiered last March at the South by Southwest festival to critical acclaim before a limited release this summer.

Critics have praised the film’s poetic structure, complete with leisurely tangents and curious juxtapositions which set it apart from standard talking heads style docs, as well as Blank’s editing style and the footage of Russell’s performances. Though some find Blank’s sprawling style repetitive, and find some of his tangents monotonous, “A Poem Is a Naked Person” is an indispensable document of the era from one of film’s most unique directors. Blank never sets out to conform to the genre’s standards, and instead tries to find the expressive beauty in between the moments other filmmakers would leave on the cutting room floor.

More thoughts from the web:

A.O. Scott, The New York Times

This film, commissioned by Mr. Russell and directed by Les Blank, is among other things a strange and gorgeous artifact of its moment. Happily indifferent to the conventions of its genre, it’s neither the record of a concert nor a talking-head-driven biography. Some wonderful performances are captured — from a clean-shaven Willie Nelson and a bewitching fiddler named Sweet Mary Egan — and a lot of grandiose wisdom is dropped, but Mr. Blank is more dreamer than journalist, less interested in empirical information than in intuitive and ecstatic forms of truth. The result is a poetic exploration of a moment, a place and an artist. Mr. Russell and his colleagues are recording and performing in Oklahoma, and as their music evokes an eclectic, regionally specific set of traditions — country and western, rhythm and blues, string bands and gospel choirs — Mr. Blank’s camera and sound equipment capture the faces and voices of local residents. Read more.

Adam Nayman, The A.V. Club

As a musical, the film is often thrilling. Russell’s performances are exciting — even seated at a piano, he looks like he’s about to jump out of his skin — and there are also glimpses of an impossibly young Willie Nelson and George Jones, whose singing seems comparatively effortless. Considering Blank’s background as an artist devoted to preserving traditions, it’s hard to say if “A Poem Is A Naked Person” is meant as a companion piece to his more modest portraits or as a contrast, and whether the director’s erratic, elliptical filmmaking choices reflect his immersion in a ramshackle milieu or a kind of nervy impatience. Either way, it’s a good thing that this unruly, enervating, sometimes exhilarating documentary finally got loose, so that more viewers can tucker themselves out try to wrestle it to the ground. Read more.

Noel Murray, The Dissolve

Some of Blank’s juxtapositions are too on-the-nose, like when he layers a conversation about capitalism over footage of a snake killing a cute baby chick. But more often, the allusions are looser. “A Poem Is A Naked Person” is littered with striking moments that fit casually into Blank’s study of fame and aspiration, like the shots of a literal “goose chase” (where live birds are thrown into a crowd for the residents to catch and cook), or a scene where a little girl sings Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World” to the guests at a wedding (who look on awkwardly when she gets to the parts about drinking wine and making sweet love). Read more.

Jeff Reichert, Filmmaker Magazine

Blank’s handling of music throughout “A Poem is a Naked Person” tells us all we need to know about the roots of Russell’s art. Instead of presenting a rock critic to blandly tell us about Russell’s American music influences, Blank shows us, cutting from Russell performing “Amazing Grace” to a raucous gospel number in an African-American church. We leave another performance to spend time with a few gentlemen playing bluegrass in the back room of the local “Pickin’ Parlor.” A quick sequence of a Native American ceremony reminds us that Russell’s home and workspace exist not too far from Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee nation. The variety in Russell’s own music choices featured — from the more straight-laced country to wilder ’70s boogie — also further suggests this breadth of influence and interest. Russell, then, with his scratchy voice and propensity for barroom piano rolls is placed firmly at the nexus of many strands of American music and culture. Blank’s done this simply, with editing. Read more.

Daniel Eagen, Film Comment

In the 1970s, concert movies were prestige items, at times vanity projects, at the least a way for musicians to connect with a new marketplace. 1967’s “Don’t Look Back” introduced Bob Dylan to a wider audience, while “Monterey Pop,” “Festival Express,” and “Woodstock” brought the festival experience to those unable to attend. The Rolling Stones appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s “One A.M.,” were the subject of the documentary “Gimme Shelter,” and commissioned Robert Frank to make a feature about them. Led Zeppelin released “The Song Remains the Same;” The Band made “The Last Waltz” with Martin Scorsese; and Russell himself appeared in “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” a feature about a 1970 Joe Cocker tour he helped produce. [Longtime collaborator Maureen] Gosling believes that Russell and Denny Cordell, his partner at Shelter Records, had seen “The Blues Accordin’” to “Lightnin’ Hopkins,” a brilliant, atmospheric portrait of a relatively obscure musician. “They may have expected a more traditional film,” she said. “At the same time they had seen Les’ films so they knew that they were not exactly typical. As we went along, we let [Russell] know what we were filming. But long periods of time would go by before we would see him or go on the road with him. So there was lots of downtime, that was when we filmed these other things.” Read more.

Angelo Muredda, Movie Mezzanine

While Blank’s sprawling canvas relative to his shorts makes “A Poem Is A Naked Person” a solid bedrock for most of his aesthetic and thematic tendencies — an attraction to outsider artists, for one, or a tendency to capture those artists by surveying the under-documented milieus they glide through, from demolition sites to pie-eating contests — it also has its limitations. Blank’s allusive editing is at its punchiest and most evocative when it forges unusual connections in a compressed timeframe and seemingly on a whim, as in the way “Gap-Toothed Women” (1987) careens from muralists to belly-dancers in its casual flow chart on the titular subject. Blank makes the most of the disparities between Oklahoma, Texas, and Tennessee here, but there’s an occasional sameness to his tangents that’s exacerbated by the protracted running time. Even so, this is a gorgeous and mercurial film, indispensable as a record of the sometimes mundane, sometimes absorbing American lives that don’t just patronize but give rise to its traditional music. Read more.

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