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Leon Russell documentary, 'A Poem is a Naked Person,' is released after 40 years

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The musician was unhappy with the documentary he commissioned from filmmaker Les Blank in the early 1970s, so he refused to allow its release. But Blank's son, Harrod, has resurrected the project.

In the early 1970s, documentary filmmaker Les Blank was commissioned to make a documentary about pianist and songwriter Leon Russell. Blank, a filmmaker known for his portraits of musicians, was commissioned by Russell and his then-business partner, Denny Cordell.

Russell was riding high at the time. He had risen to fame as music director for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, and two of Russell's first three solo albums had gone gold — featuring such tunes as his classic, “A Song For You.”

Shot mostly in Russell's home state of Oklahoma, Blank filmed the documentary between 1972-74. The film, titled "A Poem is a Naked Person," was never released due to disagreements between Russell and Blank. The filmmaker passed away in 2013, but his son, Harrod Blank, convinced Russell to release the film.

Blank met with the Frame's John Horn to discuss the process of resurrecting the film.

Les Blank (center) filming Leon Russell (right) on the set of "A Poem is a Naked Person." (Image courtesy of Janus Films)

Interview Highlights

Why didn't the film come out 40 years ago?



Leon was pretty hot back then. He was a rising star. He commissioned his film, he gets the film back, and he sees — intercut with his performances — a snake eating a baby chick, a building being blown up, a guy eating a [beer] glass, and just weird, weird periphery stuff. It could have been kind of jarring for him. Especially since he was paying for it. Les' perspective was different. Les felt that this was his best work, possibly. It was certainly his first feature and it was painful for him not to have it released.

What was motivating your father when he wanted to take on a film? What drove him? What fueled his creative energy?



Well, if it was his idea it would be his passion for the subject or his curiosity for the subject. If he was commissioned for the work — as he was in this case for the Leon Russell film — once he's hired on the film you're getting Les Blank. He would apply his curiosity to Leon Russell and Leon Russell's world. That is what they got when they got Les Blank to do this movie. As Leon said appropriately, "This is more a film about Les Blank than it is about Leon Russell."

Maybe that's why he didn't want it released.



That could be a very big part of it. You just have to remember that back in 1974, Leon was a major star. So having this film come out right then and being in that case a film more about Les Blank — well there you go. Maybe that was part of this issue there.

Your father spent a couple of years on location filming in Oklahoma. Was he frustrated that it didn't come out? Was it ever a topic of conversation over the decades when it was sitting on the shelf?



It was cause for major depression, sulking and lamenting consistently throughout his career. This was the big thing that he wishes would have come to pass. Les was sort of in heaven on location for two years. I think that the time that he could just be there to observe and to catch the perfect moments ... He must have prepared for it and really nailed it.



But he was also not really willing to compromise about it because he felt it was his best work. When I proposed to him somewhere around 1986 — along with Miramax, which was interested— to intercut the film with a contemporary look on Leon Russell at that time, Les got upset and said, "No way."

So was this movie in someways your father's "Burden of Dreams"? You're talking about something that is very parallel to what your father did in looking at Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" — about the artist struggling to reconcile his job with the realities of the world.



I think you pretty much nailed it there. Yes, this is Les' "Burden of Dreams." It could be that all of this is a "Burden of Dreams" for both Les and Leon. It's a "Burden of Dreams" just to be creative and be successful at the same time in order to live another day and make another project. It's not as easy as it seems. The more that goes into a film — as maybe Werner Herzog would say— the more risks that you have to take, the better the film. The more you put into it emotionally, the better the outcome is going to be.

At what point did you decide to try to resurrect your father's film?



As Les was sick with bladder cancer and was facing death, that is when I reached out to Leon just to let him know and appeal to him — to see if maybe he would be willing to talk about the movie. I was shocked to get an email from him the next day. I read this email to Les and the response from Leon saying that he was willing to talk and that he was sorry to hear that Les was sick. Les was flabbergasted. He could not believe it.

Executive producer Harrod Blank (left) and musician Leon Russell at "A Poem Is A Naked Person" premiere at SxSW. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Your father knew before he died that this movie was going to come out?



He didn't know that it was going to come out, but he knew that contact had been made with Leon, which was more than what he'd had in 40 years. Leon and Les did not talk for 40 years. Les claims that he had reached out to Leon periodically but never got a response. I questioned Les and I said, "Did it ever occur to you that maybe Leon didn't get your letters?" He said "No." Even in my correspondence with Leon he didn't write me back every time. He is a busy man. He wrote me back when he could.

There are glimpses of your dad throughout the film. When he was shooting it, you were probably 8, 9, 10 years old? What was it like to see your father again in the film itself, and what did that conjure up in your own mind?



Well, what I see in the film is a Les Blank [who] is overweight, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. I can see where he would have been a lot to handle because he did drink a lot back then. But the other thing that I can see is that he's very passionate and he's at the top of his game. I think that is another strength of this film — not only was Les at the top of his game, but Leon was at the top of his game. All of the other musicians in the film were at the top of their games. The film is like a pinnacle of creativity across the board.

What did you have to do to the film itself to restore it or finish it for release? Were there material changes that you made?



There were some changes that were made editorially because it made more sense. Les had [edited] the film over the course of his life and cut out 10 minutes. The last cut that he did was in 2011 and he had taken out the dialogue between him and Leon about death, and he had taken out that song, "Satisfied Mind." Because Les had just died, it seemed very poignant that [the dialogue] be put back in the film.



When I realized that I had to [include] the music credits, which did not exist in the film previously, I needed some screen time. So that is when I put [the song] "Satisfied Mind" at the very end. Les had just died having realized all [his films], so you know he had a satisfied mind. Leon is still banging out performances, so he has got to be satisfied with what he has accomplished. I just felt that was a really great way to end this project was with a satisfied mind.

"A Poem is a Naked Person" will screen July 8 at the Ace Hotel, followed by a Q&A with Leon Russell. The film is also screening from July 8-16 at CineFamily in L.A.’s Fairfax District.  

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