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As he appears in “A Poem Is a Naked Person” — a documentary made in the early ’70s and now receiving a belated and welcome United States theatrical release — Leon Russell is an enigma wrapped in a mystery and wearing his signature top hat. With silver hair and an air of sagacity belying his youth at the time (he was born in 1942), Mr. Russell seems to have sprung from the commingled imaginations of J. R. R. Tolkien and Mark Twain. He’s a wizard and a mountebank, an old-timey song-and-dance man dabbling in ancient magic.
This film, commissioned by Mr. Russell and directed by Les Blank, is among other things a strange and gorgeous artifact of its moment. Happily indifferent to the conventions of its genre, it’s neither the record of a concert nor a talking-head-driven biography. Some wonderful performances are captured — from a clean-shaven Willie Nelson and a bewitching fiddler named Sweet Mary Egan — and a lot of grandiose wisdom is dropped, but Mr. Blank is more dreamer than journalist, less interested in empirical information than in intuitive and ecstatic forms of truth.
The result is a poetic exploration of a moment, a place and an artist. Mr. Russell and his colleagues are recording and performing in Oklahoma, and as their music evokes an eclectic, regionally specific set of traditions — country and western, rhythm and blues, string bands and gospel choirs — Mr. Blank’s camera and sound equipment capture the faces and voices of local residents.
Filmed over three years, “A Poem Is a Naked Person” was Mr. Blank’s first feature, and a vital part of a unique and durable body of work. Perhaps best known for “Burden of Dreams,” a chronicle of cinematic folly and artistic ambition featuring his friend Werner Herzog, Mr. Blank, who died in 2013, was a playful, disciplined observer of creativity and the pursuit of pleasure. (“Always for Pleasure” is the name of one of his films.) He made movies about music, food and dance, but “about” doesn’t do justice to his vision and sensibility.
“A Poem Is a Naked Person” is a collaboration between filmmaker and subject, a sprawling, easily distracted jam session in which the camera functions as part of the ensemble. Not everyone who appears on screen is identified, and quite a bit goes unexplained. The mellow vibe is occasionally disrupted by some heavier stuff, like a testy encounter between Mr. Russell and the singer-songwriter Eric Andersen and a fatal encounter between a chicken and a snake. The meeting of Mr. Russell and Mr. Blank is more fortunate, and the audience has the pleasure of watching each man find his groove.
— A. O. Scott, New York Times
Sun October 11, 2015, 7:30 only, Muenzinger Auditorium
USA, 1974, English, Color, 90min, 1.33:1,NR