It’s been decades since filmmaker Les Blank made the documentary about musician Leon Russell, “A Poem is a Naked Person.” But it’s only now, two years after Blank’s death, that the film is finally enjoying its first theatrical run.
The documentary, which follows Russell and his colorful entourage from 1972 to 1974, intersperses performance footage with scenes of the era’s wild-and-woolly hippie culture.
Blank shot “A Poem is a Naked Person” at the invitation of Russell and his business partner Denny Cordell, who co-produced it. The filmmaker followed the Oklahoma-born pianist, singer and songwriter when he was one of rock music’s most popular touring performers; a restless experimenter who moved easily from rock and gospel to R&B, folk and country.
The film, which opens Friday in Southern California, was the subject of a recent question-answer session with Russell at the Theater at Ace Hotel downtown.
After a screening of the film, the 73-year-old alluded to his discomfort with seeing himself on the screen.
“Watching yourself on film, if you’ve never watched yourself on film before, you want to go crawl into bed and stay there for a week,” Russell told the packed house of several hundred, his snowy beard and hair still flowing well past his shoulders.
Russell, who now uses a motorized cart to get around, relied on a cane to walk on stage Wednesday. The Q&A was moderated by T Bone Burnett, with Blank’s son, Harrod Blank, and Les Blank’s collaborator, assistant editor Maureen Gosling, on the panel.
Out of the gate Burnett fed him a rock-geek question about his role in one of the most revered sessions Russell took part in during his years in L.A. recording studios with the group of professional players that much later came to be known as “The Wrecking Crew.”
“Did you play piano on ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’?’' Burnett asked of producer Phil Spector’s 1963 hit single with the Crystals that exemplified his fabled Wall of Sound production. “Oh yes,” Russell replied.
“Were there two pianos on that—it sounds like it?” Burnett continued. “I think there were three,” said Russell. “It was a very small space, but he often had 20 or 25 musicians playing in there.”
“A Poem is a Naked Person” includes fascinating interactions with singer-songwriter Eric Andersen, an acclaimed cult figure of the early-'70s, a pre-beard Willie Nelson and fabled country musicians George Jones, Earl Scruggs, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff. They became part of Russell’s universe when he took on his “Hank Wilson” alter-ego to record a batch of traditional country songs at a time when rock and country musicians were more frequently adversaries than collaborators.
Harrod Blank has said his father long lamented that “A Poem Is a Naked Person” had never gotten a proper theatrical or home video release. “It was his dream to see this released,” Harrod said recently. “I sort of put my life on hold to see this through.”