A Poem Is a Naked Person

It took almost half a century for southern rocker Leon Russell to see the beauty in Les Blank’s abstract documentary portrait of him, this crazy quilt of Americana spun from two years’ worth of early ’70s Oklahoma hangouts. The director died in the meantime, but his son Harrod reached out to Russell and finally cleared the rights to release it. Blank’s gift for (and to) nonfiction filmmaking was best expressed by getting nice and cozy within the milieus of traditional music, yet maintaining distance enough to give his portraiture a sturdy basic frame shape. Like all of Blank’s movies, this one is effortlessly weird and full of vitality. It records a surreal fusion of at least two distinctive lifestyles: the down-home and the rock-star. Blank paid fond attention not just to Russell himself, seen relaxedly holding court both on stage and in studio, but also to the unusual people within his world: Here a painter trapping scorpions in an empty pool, there the glass-eating host of a parachuting contest, everywhere a vaguely familiar session player. The narrative strategy was, you might say, loose. There is one scene of a literal wild goose chase. But — or, I should say, thus — the result was extraordinary, and definitely worth the wait.