Never released before in theaters, the late, great documentarian Les Blank's 1974 "A Poem Is a Naked Person" is a tuneful peculiarity, capturing singer-songwriter Leon Russell and his bandmates, his friends, guest musicians and Oklahoma eccentrics.
Blank loved being a cultural omnivore with his camera, so a country-meets-blues-meets-rock showman like Russell — who initiated the project and produced it — seemed a natural fit. The result is a mix of rehearsal footage, lively gigs and rural happenings (a building demolition, a goose grab) that hews less to conventional music documentary portraiture than to a loose, atmospheric brush stroke of a world that created Russell and that grows out of him.
For the record
July 10, 12:30 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said that Les Blank died in 2011. He died in 2013.
To suggest that continuum, at one point Blank cuts from a rousing gospel church to a virtuosic fiddle player at an outdoor festival, then to Russell's studio, where a harmonica player kicks off a gorgeous rendition of "Goodnight Irene."
The film is also a picture of art and culture as day-to-day identity, to be picked and strummed, talked out between sessions, warbled into a mic or, in the case of a parachute festival organizer with his empty beer glass, bitten into and chewed over. (We think "ouch," he looks happy.)
Russell, in fact, is hardly the star of "A Poem" despite plenty of rollicking performances filmed in Austin, Texas, and Anaheim, as well as his then-new studio by a lake outside of Tulsa. (Singing visitors include George Jones and Eric Anderson.) By turns ornery and philosophical, Russell is sideman to his director's carnival ethos, which might be what kept the long-haired Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from allowing the film's release until Blank's son, Harrod, brokered a detente recently.
Blank, who died in 2013, despaired that his jangly ode to the strange and the soulful, the funky and the faithful, was his unseen masterpiece. "Burden of Dreams," Blank's documentary about the making of Werner Herzog's 1982 film "Fitzcarraldo," forgoes that assessment. But now that "A Poem" is out, its oddball colors and willful wanderings betray a sweet, savory, uncompromising air that showcases Russell's uniquely fused brand of American harmony with rascally ebullience.
'A Poem Is a Naked Person'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Cinefamily, Los Angeles