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Review: Trippy time capsule follows 1970s Leon Russell

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Watching “A Poem is a Naked Person” is a bit like time traveling. Fractured, chaotic and jittery, the film takes you back to 1972-1974, when filmmaker Les Blank was hanging out in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at pianist Leon Russell’s recording studio.

Not that this is some measured, worshipful study of a rock star’s process, although that approach worms its way into the film here and there. It’s far more weird than that. One scene follows a fellow picking bugs out of an empty swimming pool and then transforming the walls of the pool into a psychedelic painting. Another has a snake eating a baby chick while someone rants on about capitalism.

Russell — a legendary session player before becoming a star on his own — does show up, both in the studio and performing live at various venues. So do George Jones, Willie Nelson and a host of ’70s session musicians, although it’s often unclear what they have to do with the movie.

Sometimes music will flow and Blank will let images of nature pass by while completely ignoring the performers. Other times he’ll jerk away from a song and land in some incoherent conversation or rant from an obscure character. Much of the time is spent rolling in Tulsa color — a goose giveaway, a tractor pull, a huge catfish caught, the blowing up of an old building.

Somehow, though, the movie captures the essence of Russell, who was raised in Oklahoma before finding success in Hollywood. At the time, despite his long grey hair and beard and lengthy discography, Russell had just turned 30 and was heading a revivalist-type stage show while exploring country and gospel classics.

This film was never released in theaters — it was obviously way too far out and ragged for its own good. But it works nicely as a warped time capsule harkening back to strange days.



‘A Poem is a Naked Person’


Not Rated

Running time: 90 minutes

At the Detroit Film Theatre