In a scene from 1974’s A Poem is a Naked Person, a young Leon Russell (both the subject of and collaborator behind this very film) and songwriter Eric Andersen sit, cameras rolling, and try to work things out after an argument. Andersen’s studio session had just been interrupted by Russell’s camera crew, causing a heated outburst between them and now the inflamed egos are dancing around each other, trying to make peace without total surrender.
“How old are you anyway, 42? 38?” Andersen jabs at a graying Russell.
“I’m quite sensitive about that so you can’t talk to me about that anymore.” Leon Russell responds, sounding less abrasive and more genuinely wounded. “I’m barely 30 years old, man.”
It’s a brief but telling moment, one of several in this documentary, which shows the sensitivity behind the swagger of piano playing legend Leon Russell. This same sensitivity kept the 1974 documentary in a cardboard box for 40 years.
If you haven’t heard the tale yet, I’ll summarize; fresh off the Mad Dogs and Englishman tour with Joe Cocker, Russell enlisted director Les Blank to direct a film about the making of his country rock album “Hank Wilson’s Back.” They set up in Oklahoma and started rolling film on the live shows, sessions, parties and transparent moments of conversation which followed. When Les Blank finally presented the finished product to the subject of his film, Russell hated it. It was shelved.
Blank was still very proud of APIANP and was known to show it in spite of Russell’s disapproval but for decades the only way you could see the film was with the director in person. Eventually, after Blank passed away, his son took up the cause to give this beautiful film an appropriate release. Four decades later, a bit softer with the passing of time and vanity, Russell finally approved the release of A Poem is a Naked Person.
Now 40 years later, when asked directly about the specific reason for the delayed release, Leon hesitates. He’s reluctant to delve too deep, but each version of his answer scratches the same self-conscious surface. He told one source that the film wasn’t what he wanted it to be, that it was more the director’s vision and not his. “More style than substance, in my opinion,” he says, eluding to some personality conflicts between Blank and himself. He told another that he didn’t want his midwest methodist family seeing him smoking and cursing on screen. Once he even left it at, “I don’t know why. I just didn’t like it.” But at a special screening last night, on the stage of the Ace Theater in downtown Los Angeles, he told us, a full room of fans who had just watched the film with him, that “sometimes, when you really see yourself, you just want to cry and go to bed for a week.”
A Poem is a Naked Person is about so much more than Leon Russell. Unlike the typical rock documentary, this film turns the camera lens away from the star at every opportunity in order to better understand what was going on around him at the time. While Russell’s performances are moving, ranging from wild and energetic to somber and spellbinding, it’s the wide focus – the one that lets in all the chatter of Russell’s surroundings – which really tells his story.
Sure, the shots of baby-faced Willie Nelson and George Jones are captivating. But it’s about rural Oklahoma, a wedding, an empty swimming pool, a building torn down, a church service – they show us not just one facet of one man, but a complete picture. Perhaps the whole story wasn’t interesting to Russell, at least not in 1974. It makes sense that a man with a rock and roll music career on the rise wouldn’t be excited to show extended footage of catfish in the middle of a film which was supposed to be about him. It can be hard to see value in the details of your own story.
The miracle of Leon Russell is that he possesses within himself both the personality and charisma to carry his own stage and the ability to seamlessly fuse his talent with the biggest names in music history. He could sit at a piano and melt perfectly into the background of more songs on the radio than you could imagine. The Crystals, The Beach Boys, George Harrison, Doris Day, Gram Parsons, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Sinatra, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones – every one of these names (and more) owe something to the talent of Leon Russell. A master collaborator, he played, wrote, and arranged the very foundation of what we know as 60s and 70s rock and roll. He could be energetic, commanding, even abrasive, but at the end of the day, he just wanted to get in a room and play good music.
A Poem is a Naked Person – the title alone points to the vulnerability required to make art. Here the film is the poem and Leon Russell, the naked and exposed person. The man and his art are one and the same, equally honest, unassuming, and vulnerable to the critic’s eye. Maybe it was the profanity or the Oklahoma tractors or just his gray hair on a big screen which made him hesitate to undress for so long. Those reasons are in the past. As he said to those of us in the theater last night, still basking in the afterglow of what we had just seen and experienced, “That’s me, I did those things.”