I came of age swath in the music of the 1970s–rock & roll and rhythm & blues. The Rolling Stones Kiss The Jackson Five Aerosmith Abba Foreigner The Four Tops The Temptations … ah … I could go on and on; yet, in all of my coming of age, I never heard of American musician and songwriter Leon Russell. Curious. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame notes him as being a Rock & Roll Renaissance man and a veritable superstar of the 1970s. Never heard of him; but, I did know Paul Revere & the Raiders Phil Specter Joe Cocker and the tender love song “A Song for you” sung by Ray Charles; but I did not know that Leon Russell wrote that song, and that he was a most respected and sought after session musician who worked with those groups and solo artists as well.
Les Blank’s documentary A Poem is a Naked Person brings to relief a kind of life & times of Leon Russell, the Oklahoma resident who made it big in the world of rock and roll. Blank, who died in 2013, documents Russell’s work in his studio in Oklahoma 1972-1974. The film, however, languished on the shelf for forty years due to creative differences and legalities. A Poem is a Naked Person finally receives its due thanks to Blank’s son, Harrod. To view the documentary is to witness unretouched performances that challenge our usual expectations of documentaries. They are to be slick, no matter how raw and visceral the subject matter. We anticipate interruptions from and interpretations by talking heads and/or a narrator. A Poem is a Naked Person is a flat-line of a documentary whose only intervals are footage from Russell’s concerts or practice sessions.
This is due in part because A Poem is a Naked Person reveals almost nothing about Russell, the person. As filmed, it is a documentary that requires knowledge of Russell’s socio-cultural imprint on Rock & Roll. Without that, you are searching for your own point of entry into the film. Yet, Blank’s project is a reminder that not everything will be handed to you. He pushes those of us without prior knowledge of Leon Russell to look him up, and that is exactly what I did. Have you heard Lady Blue? How about Roll Away the Stone? Listen to A Song for You. Nice!
A Poem is a Naked Person plays through November 11 at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.
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