On a naked corner in the American South, a young black girl boosts herself up on a yellow fire hydrant, leaning into the fence that she climbs.
Edging along the top of the metal chain link, she leans out again, grasping the pole of an adjacent street sign and, ever so gracefully, slides down until her feet reach the sidewalk. This simple moment of play, captured in the 1973 film Hot Pepper by the late, great documentarian Les Blank, exemplifies the subtle, patient and deeply human filmmaking that’s possible when you least expect it. Blank’s films are full of this these lyrical observations, which is why it’s so important to absorb, preserve and perpetuate his cinematic vision.
Whether capturing the mud-encrusted jungle trials of Werner Herzog (Burden of Dreams), following a second-line band though the streets of New Orleans (Always for Pleasure), or dwelling on the pungent legacy of the stinking rose (Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers), you could always count on an unconventional approach from this master independent filmmaker. For those willing to delve deeper into his catalog, a world of color and human richness lies within the reels. He was not the first to bring this unique personal style to the screen, but his beautiful offbeat pitch echoes unforgettably in the canon of American cinema.
Amongst his many explorations of musicians, one important film has remained largely hidden from public view. A Poem is a Naked Person, a film Blank finished in 1974 with Southern rock icon Leon Russell, was swallowed up in a mire of creative differences and rights issues for decades. Only available for nonprofit screenings when Blank was present, this unreleased film is finally available to the public this summer.
On a sunny spring afternoon in Berkeley, California, the long, lanky form of Harrod Blank is climbing a dirt trail tracing the hills that rim the East Bay village. “I used to walk this with Les, when he was still able to hike,” he muses. “He loved this place, and would come here whenever he could to exercise.” I follow Harrod further along the wooded trail as he tells stories about his father, whom he lost to cancer in 2013.
Prior to Les’ passing, Harrod took it upon himself to resurrect Poem. He contacted Russell and established a relationship that found artistic common ground through the film Wild Wheels, an art car documentary that Harrod directed in 1992. Encouraged by this interaction, Harrod gathered a small team and set to work restoring Poem in New York. After delivering a final cut the year after, Harrod and Leon Russell came to an agreement to see the rights settled and the film finally released and distributed. It debuted at South by Southwest 2015 and has gathered an audience of music and documentary lovers at festivals around the world even prior to its July theatrical release by Janus and Criterion.
“It’s by far the biggest thing I could have accomplished for Les,” Harrod said. It was the one thing in his life that he wanted to come to pass.”
Filmmaker and frequent Blank collaborator Maureen Gosling was at the beginning of her career when she found herself working on Poem with the documentarian. The pair had just finished some filming in Louisiana when they got the call to join Russell and his camp at a newly constructed lakeside music studio in rural Oklahoma. According to Gosling, the Oklahoma location was “a five-room floating motel on Leon’s property,” featuring a Moviola and a cast of characters that shaped the tenor of the documentary. When they weren’t in the studio or concert hall capturing Russell and his band, the moviemakers were out collecting cinematic samples of the surrounding community and weaving them into the fabric of the film.
Gosling calls the film “pure experience. Les was filming and editing based on all the non-logical, heady feelings around. What he was doing was poetic.”
While Russell is the star of this film, the world that surrounds him is given new weight and significance in through the window of Blank’s wandering lens. In the quiet of the studio, a visiting George Jones sits with a guitar and delivers a solemnly beautiful love song. Accompanying Jones’ rolling baritone, we witness painter Jim Franklin prepare a drained swimming pool on Russell’s property to become his next canvas—an act that includes carefully collecting a host of small, thirsty scorpions which crawl around the bowl of the pool. As Franklin expounds on creative impulse, sea creatures erupt from his paint brush with the same rising energy as Jones’ performance. As Gosling points out, it’s poetry in motion.
Soulful musical performances by Russell and his band take place live and in the studio with a crackling intimacy. But this is not a concert film, and Blank’s eye is always moving, looking for transcendent moments to captivate the heart and mind. The result is a multi-layered visual and aural experience, edited with an unexpected rhythmic exuberance as surprising as it is charming. The moments are as varied as the subjects that Blank focuses on: Russell leaning into his piano, a sweet grin peeking through his tangle of hair. He pauses to talk with the audience, and picks up a plate of jambalaya from the top of the piano. A skydiving instructor (and D.B. Cooper suspect) celebrates the day by chewing into a beer glass at a parachuting demonstration—during which Blank is almost clobbered by a fast-landing enthusiast. Willie Nelson’s trademark smile serenades an audience with a moving rendition of “Good-Hearted Woman.” A building is demolished in downtown Tulsa to the cheers of onlookers who later search for souvenirs in the rubble. These moments linger on, grace notes on the ripples of a central theme.
As in many of his films, Blank makes small onscreen cameos while interacting with his subjects. Whether he’s slugging a beer and kissing one of the backstage faithful, or unwinding on a bed while a hotel room party goes sideways, he is the observer and the observed. You could always count on him to take part in the action—a vitally important factor in gaining the trust necessary to film his subjects so intimately.
Seeing Poem 40 years after its creation further underscores the legacy of Les Blank. It may very well be one of the best films in his catalog. He doesn’t blink when uncomfortable realities surface, but stares into them openly, making you feel like you’re part of a sacred, eternal moment. That was Blank’s magic—he invited you to join him wherever the story led, then knocked you over with the journey.
Near the end of our afternoon hike, Harrod Blank sits down on a bench where he and Les would often rest. He peels an orange and reflects on Poem. “I find Les to be a lot like Leon. Both men were strong-willed, uncompromising artists. That’s why it was so challenging to get this film out. In many ways, it is the perfect recap of Les and Leon’s careers.”
He pauses and looks out over the light of the late afternoon. “Ultimately, I’d like the film to fulfill Les’ dream. I want it to be as successful as it can be, for both Les and Leon.” MM
A Poem is a Naked Person opens in theaters starting July 1, 2015, courtesy of Janus Films. Top image courtesy of Les Blank Films.