In the early 70s, American singer and songwriter Leon Russell was having a moment. An Oklahoma native, Russell had spent much of his 20s as a session keyboardist in Los Angeles, recording with the biggest musicians of his time, including George Harrison and Bob Dylan. His modestly selling eponymous debut built up enough of a fan base to launch his second record, 1971's Leon Russell and the Shelter People, to a perky ranking of 17 on the Billboard 100. Carney, his third solo album, released in 1972, reached number 2.
Soon after the release of Carney, then up-and-coming filmmaker Les Blank was hired to make a film on Russell's life and career. Blank's previous films films included a short on the Los Angeles counterculture and a longer feature on the blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins—his pairing with Russell seemed an ideal match. Blank and his assistant, Maureen Gosling, then spent two years filming Russell on tour and at his home studio in Grand Lake o' the Cherokees, Oklahoma, during which time musicians and artists such as Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Jim Franklin paid a visit. But Blank also pointed the camera at his surroundings, capturing the bizarre and feral atmosphere of rural Oklahoma. The resulting film, A Poem Is a Naked Person, is a bricolage of live performances and studio sessions interlaced with footage of everything from a building demolition, to a snake feeding on a chick, to a man (rumored to be famed plane hijacker D. B. Cooper) chugging a beer and chewing on glass.
Watch this exclusive clip of George Jones performing 'Take Me' and Jim Franklin's otherworldly painting from 'A Poem Is a Naked Person':
Russell was displeased by A Poem Is a Naked Person 's loose and arty structure and rejected the film upon receiving it. Blank was subsequently prevented from screening the documentary unless he was physically present in the audience. The subject was so sore for both men that they never spoke again. It wasn't until almost 40 years later, in 2013, that Blank's son, the documentarian Harrod Blank , reestablished contact with Russell, and revived the idea of publicly releasing the film. After two years of negotiations, Russell has finally given his consent. The film has been acquired by Janus Films and will soon be available as part of the Criterion Collection.
I met with Leon Russell and Harrod Blank at Criterion's quiet and decorated Manhattan offices. Cowboy hats adorned both men's heads, and a long white beard hung from Russell's chin. "I still can't believe this is happening," Harrod said after greeting me. The film would have its official theater premiere only a few hours after the following conversation took place.
VICE: Let's start by going back in time to the early 70s. A time, it seems, of great flux between two generational paradigms. The hippie movement had all but burned out, and disco and punk had yet to take off. How do you remember it?
Leon Russell: It was definitely a time of change and to some degree of fear. I remember playing venues that housed 20,000 seats and suspecting that at least a couple of people in the audience were crazy enough to kill me. And then, you know, John Lennon was later shot. So it wasn't complete paranoia.
In the documentary, I get less of a sense of fear than of freedom. There's footage of people dancing at your shows, of jam sessions, of sunsets over your home, of catfishing at your lake—almost everyone filmed seems to be in a good mood, even euphoric. And perhaps that's due to Les's artistic vision. What was the impetus of getting him to create what would become A Poem Is a Naked Person?
Well, it was my partner [Denny Cordell]'s idea. I didn't know anything about it.
Harrod Blank: Denny Cordell probably commissioned Les either through a recommendation by the American Film Institute or by seeing The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins and requesting him thereafter. Or both.
The whole project ended up taking two years.
Two years of shooting, I believe.
And during that time, did he become part of your community and group?
Well, he lived up at my property at Grand Lake o' the Cherokees the whole time he was working on the film, just about.
And you were living there as well, Harrod?
Blank: I was only there one summer in either '72 or '73.
And what was that time like for you?
I was a boy in the wild with a lake and catfish and scorpions and crazy artists. I didn't see Leon, unfortunately. He was on tour while I was there. I spent my time swimming and catfishing with Les.
He had two films come out while he was there, right?
Hot Pepper and Dry Wood. But he never put aside A Poem Is a Naked Person for very long.
When he finished the film and handed it in, what was your initial reaction, Leon?
Russell: I wasn't really that excited about it. I felt that there was a lot of stuff of mine that was missing, but an abundance of stuff about him. It looked like it was more his film than mine.
Were there certain scenes that particularly rankled you?
Blank: Maybe the snake eating the chick?
Russell: Well, sometimes I force myself to watch that stuff because it's the reality of nature. But I don't think I would have put that scene in there.
Blank: Not many people would.
Russell: My wife objects to it pretty strongly.
"They hadn't spoken in 40 years. After the Leon rejected the film, the only communication Les and Leon ever had was between lawyers." —Harrod Blank
After you and Les went your separate ways, did you remain in communication?
No, we didn't. I never spoke to him again.
Is it strange for you two to be sitting next to one another?
Blank: Leon and I have become friends, actually. I even learned that Leon had seen, and enjoyed, my PBS documentary on car art, Wild Wheels.
I noticed there's some car art in the beginning of the A Poem Is a Naked Person. The title is written on a car door.
I've since discovered these slides of Jim Franklin, who painted that title and had also painted someone's portrait onto a car. So there's this interesting car-art connection there.
Russell: Jim's a mad painter. He never stops. I went down to the Armadillo World Headquarters, the old music venue in Austin, to an art auction, and his paintings were everywhere.
I've read that Jim's has an affinity toward armadillos, and that it was he who gave the Armadillo World Headquarters its name.
He did paint Freddie King with an armadillo exploding out of his chest.
I loved Jim's role in the documentary, the oddball artist who embodies the free spirit of that time. There's a particularly mesmerizing moment [in the clip above] when the camera is sweeping over Jim's pool mural, and your choral, psychedelic track "Acid Annapolis" is playing over it. It's the film's 2001: A Space Odyssey obelisk moment.
You know how I made that track? I brought in a bunch of people to play and sing, but I wouldn't let them hear what they were playing or singing along to. Occasionally I would turn up the main track and they would get with it for a moment. Then I would turn it off. I then pieced fragments of those recordings together to make "Acid Annapolis."
"I remember when I was a kid—I used to sing in a duet with another guy. We made a recording, and I heard him singing, and I heard this other voice, and I thought, Who's that awful-sounding guy? It was me." —Leon Russell
That brings to mind another great thing that the film highlights: your ability to conduct. You can lead people, and when you aren't satisfied with a take, you can have them repeat a bar, just by a gesture or simple phrase.
Well, I used to conduct for a living.
It's almost as if A Poem Is A Naked Person is an album on film with many guest performers.
Blank: I think it was Leon's conductor's sense that was vital in bringing together the people that make up the film. Jim, Les, and all the various musicians who came around, from George Jones to Willie Nelson. Leon says it wasn't a conscious decision, but to me, it was him who really brought them all in.
On Fightland: Did you know Willie Nelson has a fifth-degree black belt (and it's not in weed-smoking)?
There's a sense of leadership that you have throughout the film. How do you see yourself when you watch it?
Russell: There's a well-known reality when people see themselves for the first time on film, or hear themselves for the first time on record... I remember when I was a kid—I used to sing in a duet with another guy. We made a recording, and I heard him singing, and I heard this other voice, and I thought, Who's that awful-sounding guy? It was me.
Do you feel that repugnance fed into your hesitancy to put out the film?
By the time A Poem Is a Naked Person was finished I'd already seen myself on film.
Seeing the documentary now, are you happier with it?
There's been a lot of work done to it. Some unnecessary scenes removed. That's nice.
What was it like for you, Harrod, to connect with Leon? I know that putting out the film was your dad's dying wish.
Blank: We got in touch while Les was still alive, though very sick. I reached out to Leon and said that Les was ill, but that we wanted to show A Poem Is a Naked Person a final time and hoped he might consider attending. Leon replied with a polite and friendly email saying that he had a prior engagement,but wished us the best. This response pleased my father. It was the first he heard from Leon. You have to remember that they hadn't spoken in 40 years. After Leon rejected the film, the only communication Les and Leon ever had was between lawyers.
"Les had a mean streak. I remember one time we were driving and Les said, 'I should've never taken this job. I should've documented the Rolling Stones and got all the free cocaine and champagne I'd ever want.'" —Leon Russell
What was that last screening of A Poem Is a Naked Person with your father in attendance like?
After the film, Les got up and spoke to the audience. Now Les was normally a quiet man, but that night he was more talkative than ever. He gave his side of things and talked at length about the documentary. He passed away shortly after that screening. Leon and I remained in touch after Les's death, and I finally broached the idea of releasing the film.
Was there anything specific, Leon, that made you reconsider putting it out?
Russell: I don't know what it was. I think maybe I just liked Harrod more than his father. Les had a mean streak. I remember one time we were driving and Les said, "I should've never taken this job. I should've documented the Rolling Stones and got all the free cocaine and champagne I'd ever want."
Blank: It was the 70s, and Les was hitting it hard. And when Les drank too much, he did have a bit of mean streak in him. He would delve into a person's vulnerability and nail them. And maybe he did that to Leon—I don't know, I wasn't there. But I've seen him do that to other people. He cut back on all that as he got older. And I think that helped him edit the film anew. When he quit smoking, for instance, he was so disgusted by the habit that he wanted all pictures and footage of him smoking removed from the film. And some of what he did cut from the original 100 minutes was of him smoking.
What were some of the other things he cut?
Honestly, a lot of hippie-dippy lagniappe. It wasn't necessary for the film. It was actually slowing it down.
Did you put anything he cut back in?
I put the segment for "Satisfied Mind" back in after Les's last cut. And the only footage we had was from the original film, so I used "Satisfied Mind." It's a nice note to end on. I think Les left this world with a satisfied mind, and I think Leon has done so much that he couldn't not be satisfied. The film is about being creative. It doesn't matter if it's Leon Russell or Jim Franklin or whoever. Being creative was Les's mantra. And that's what everyone in the film is doing—being creative.
Russell: Except for the guy eating the glass.
Les Blank's A Poem Is a Naked Person is playing at Film Forum in New York through July 14.
Michael Barron is on Twitter.