From 1972-1974, documentarian Les Blank spent time with country artist Leon Russell at his studio in Grand Lake, Oklahoma recording hours of video footage for a film project that would later become “A Poem is a Naked Person.” However, creative differences and problems with musical copyright stifled the release of the documentary for decades, preventing it from ever receiving theatrical distribution.
Following Blank’s death in 2013, his son, Harrod, was finally able to complete the film, which debuted earlier this year at South by Southwest. “A Poem is a Naked Person” received its official theatrical opening last night at New York City’s Film Forum with Leon Russell in attendance. Afterwards, Academy Award winning director Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”) spoke with Russell, Blank and Maureen Gosling, Les Blank’s longtime assistant and editor.
Read the highlights from the talk below:
What it was like for Russell to hear and see himself in the film.
“When a layman, like myself, sees himself for the first time or hears himself for the first time, he goes to bed and cries for two weeks,” said the musician. “When I was in grade school I had a little duet act with a guy who was a beautiful singer and somebody recorded it on a wire machine. They played it back for us and I went, ‘I hear Donald but what is that other ugly voice?’ It turned out to be me of course.” Russell also joked about his voice, saying, “I started off by imitating Moms Mabley.”
Russell’s thoughts on Les Blank.
When asked whether there was anything he felt was missing from the film, Russell responded, “I suppose there was. At the time there was quite a lot of stuff I thought was good. Looking at it now, I think it’s great. [Blank] was probably right.” Russell later added, “He’s kind of a genius in his own way. He made a lot of movies that portrayed components of people’s lives that perhaps would have never been known.” That’s not to say he loved everything in the film. There is one seemingly gratuitous scene where a snake is seen devouring an entire chicken. Russell stated, “That is pretty frightening. I wouldn’t have put it in.”
On playing with Nashville musicians.
“I used to play with the guys out in L.A. on records and they always talked about the Nashville guys. They get together and talk for five minutes, write a bunch of numbers down on a piece of paper, and then they’re ready to play. So I said to myself, ‘I’m ready to play. I’m going to go down there and play with those guys.’ I was taking the car back from L.A. to Tulsa, where I lived, and I stopped at a truck stop and there were about a thousand hillbilly tapes in there. They were three dollars a piece so I bought a hundred dollars worth of them. I listened to them and picked out the ones that I knew, I only recorded the ones that I knew. We did 26 songs in the first two days. It was very fast and a lot of fun. Those guys down there were so polite.”
Russell spent time in the studio working with Brian Wilson.
In honor of the release of “Love and Mercy,” Demme asked Russell if he had ever worked with The Beach Boys given his extensive studio work. Russell responded, “Oh, absolutely! I remember we were doing one session in particular at Western Recorders, there were twenty guys in the small room. Brian went in and to the first guy he sang his part, and the second guy his part, and the third guy, all the way around. By the time it got to the end, the first guy had forgotten his part. He went back around and sang it again. He taught them by note. He’s quite remarkable, Brian.”
Elton John saved Russell’s career.
“I was certainly happy when he asked me to do [‘The Union’], and surprised since I hadn’t spoken to him in 35 years. He came over and I asked him to open a couple of shows for me. I came out and saw him and said, ‘My career is over. I’ve been replaced.’ It was a pretty amazing time. He went on to do his thing and sell out 20,000 seats every day a week all around the world. I was very happy he asked me to do something with him.”
Concerning the creative process of making the album, Russell added, “I had some brain surgery right before that record, so I was an hour late the first day. When I got there Elton had written five songs very fast. I’m kind of a fast writer now that I’ve figured it out a little bit. Bernie [Taupin], he had a song called ‘I Should Have Sent Roses,’ he had the lyrics and melody. I thought it was a good melody so I sang it, and T. Bone Burnett picked up a recorder and recorded it and that ended up on the album. It was great being around those guys since the last time I saw them they were 19.”
Russell bought a book to help with songwriting.
“I’ve had studios in my houses for the last 45 years. The thing is I got to sit in them for hours and weeks and months waiting for inspiration. I couldn’t do it without inspiration and it mainly never came. I was getting ready to do my ‘Wedding Album’ and I thought, ‘I got to do this like an accountant or a lawyer, where I get up and do the job and eat dinner.’ I got this book called ‘How to Write the Popular Song.’ I read that and went through all the things they suggested and I learned how to do it. I can write one right now. Writing was always the hardest part of the deal…that book helped me a lot.”
Cerebral palsy formed his playing style.
“When I was born I had a birth injury in my second and third vertebrae. It gave me what they called spastic paralysis, which is actually cerebral palsy. I had two parts of my body, my left side which was strong and somewhat dumb, and the other side was weak and hard to control but perhaps smarter. It gave me a very strong sense of the duality of the plane that we live in. When I was playing, I had to think about it three or four seconds ahead. I had to figure out what I was going to play and decide if I could play it or not. Then I’d play it. It was kind of like playing the pipe organ, where it doesn’t make the sound three or four seconds later. It was very much a pain in the ass actually. I think that stuff had something to do with [forming my style].”