To a certain extent, every film ultimately functions as a time capsule of the period in which it was shot, and documentaries doubly so. But when a film sits in the vaults unseen for four decades, the effect is magnified considerably. Such is the case of “A Poem Is a Naked Person,” Les Blank’s freewheeling documentary study of Leon Russell, which was shot between 1972 and ’74 and is just now seeing a theatrical release. By turns bewitching, beguiling and belabored, with just as much emphasis on the characters surrounding Russell as the singer-pianist himself, this poignant curio should attract a small but enthusiastic following in limited release.
While the music of the 1970s is still indelibly woven into the contemporary soundscape, it’s striking just how ancient much the era’s milieu now appears. For one, it’s hard to imagine a man like Leon Russell commanding a screaming teenage fanbase in any later decade. With gray hair, a long, scraggy beard and a holler situated somewhere between gospel, country and rock, Russell is seen here performing at the height of his stardom, constructing a home studio in his home state of Oklahoma, and recording the album “Hank Wilson’s Back.”
Despite some revived interest in his career thanks to a hit 2010 album with Elton John, Russell’s music isn’t especially well known to post-boomer generations, and given the film’s complete absence of biographical or contextual information, newcomers will take some time getting their bearings. Willie Nelson and a Budweiser-swilling George Jones are some of the more instantly recognizable performers who show up early on, while more music-obsessive viewers will spot country session ace Charlie McCoy and David Briggs* dropping by the studio, as well as folk singer Eric Andersen, who throws a somewhat embarrassing diva fit when Russell doesn’t recognize him. Gospel singer Mary McCreary, who later became Russell’s wife, is seen here doing a Tiny Tim impression.
The film provides some excellent footage of a few recording sessions, as well as a rather raucous live show with the camera often facing out at the audience, giving a striking sideman’s view of the proceedings. (From a modern perspective, it’s strangely fascinating to see a rabid concert crowd without a single phone or camera in sight, with the vibe so loose that Russell doesn’t hesitate to gobble down baked beans from a Styrofoam plate while onstage.) But the music is only half the story. In between, Blank offers footage of a boa constrictor eating a baby chick, a tractor pull, a catfishing expedition, a Tulsa hotel implosion, a glass-eating airshow host, and a few interviews with random locals. Few of these subjects have any obvious thematic or personal connection to Russell, they just happened to catch Blank’s eye as readily as his ostensible star. (Though the film is hardly unflattering, it’s easy to see why Russell, who served as its producer, might have wanted it shelved: The director he hired just doesn’t seem overly interested in him.)
At times this sort of rambling indiscipline can test one’s patience, and the sporadic interview segments with Russell don’t add up to much. (Frankly, if you’ve heard one stoned ‘70s rock star half-interestedly free-associate about death, you’ve heard them all.) But even the less immediately engaging material here helps build an uncannily cohesive snapshot of a very specific time and place, and the past decades have only given it a bittersweet edge.
Watching now, we know that Blank — here directing his first feature — would go on to enjoy a singular career as a documentarian until his death in 2013. We also know that Russell would have a few more years at the top before fading out of the spotlight. But what, one can’t help but wonder, ever became of “Sweet” Mary Egan, the fiery fiddler we see laying waste to “Orange Blossom Special” in the studio, or the grade-school-aged Malissa Bates, who sweetly serenades the camera with Hoyt Axton’s “Joy to the World” outside a wedding? One imagines Blank would have been just as eager to catch up with them as with Russell.
*Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified Nashville musician David Briggs as the Neil Young producer of the same name.