Movie Review – A Poem Is a Naked Person
Both screenings for Les Blank’s long-awaited documentary on Leon Russell were sold out and I hadn’t made prior arrangements, but luckily, my homie, longtime former San Francisco Chronicle rock writer Joel Selvin showed up and there I was in plus-one land at the Opera Plaza movieplex on a rainy night.
As I was talking to Joel, Leon himself was being wheeled in – he ain’t very mobile these days but still cuts a dramatically bearded, cowboy hat wearing figure.
For those who don’t know, Blank is the late, great Berkeley-based documentarian who previously cut his teeth with features on Clifton Chenier and Lightnin’ Hopkins, among others. But this visual record of his time hanging out with Leon and assorted greats – George Jones, Willie Nelson when his hair was still naturally brown, legendary Nashville sidemen like Charlie McCoy and a host of others – has been sitting on the shelf since 1974, after reported disagreements between Leon and Les.
It was worth the wait – and then some.
Watching Leon, in top form, as he worked his way through some of the country standards he cut on “Hank Wilson’s Back’’ and timeless originals like “A Song For You’’ – which one audience member later described, accurately, as perhaps the greatest ballad ever written, along with standards like “Rolling’ In My Sweet Baby;s Arms,’ “Amazing Grace’’ and “Farther Along’’ was a – literally – out of this world experience.
Readers here will be more interested in the music than the movie-making, but Blank’s not atypical method here was a shaggy dog tale – or, “a collection of vignettes,’’ as Russell later characterized it, dryly in a panel discussion with Selvin, Blank’s son Harrad and assistant editor Maureen Gosling.
Partly shot at Russell’s home, a floating motel of sorts in Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees, Oklahoma, the concert and woodshedding footage at places as far flung as the legendary Bradley’s Barn outside Nashville, Anaheim (where Mama Cass can be spotted among the admirers) and various “Pickin’ Parlors’’ along the way, the narrative, such as it is, intersperses stoned hippie raps of the kind popular at the time with dramatic footage of the moment when Russell emerged from the shadows of the studio to become an iconic hillbilly hipster .
Through it all, no matter what else is going on – including a lengthy rant by a buddy who is painting Russell’s pool, with extended closeups of his toes – Leon, needless to say, never loses his cool.
A memorable backstage exchange between Eric Anderson, the very picture of the self-involved, self-important East Coast folkie, challenging Leon’s headliner status is reminiscent of the famed Donovan-Dylan cutting session in “Don’t Look Back,’’ although it must be said that Anderson is more contentious than Mr. Leitch, whose chief goal seemed to be to stay out of the line of fire. (His chief bone of contention was that Leon seemed to be conducting a “revival meeting,” which was completely accurate.)
Asked to explain how a human being on this planet was able to write something as eloquent as “A Song For You,’’ Russell gave the question the dignity, and the brevity, it deserved: “The most I can say is that songs have a life of their own and they allow me to be there.’’