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A Poem Is a Naked Person

The never-released Les Blank-Leon Russell musical and cultural journey is finally in theaters

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In the early 1970s, filmmaker Les Blank (Burden of Dreams) and musician Leon Russell collaborated on a film, ostensibly about Russell's career and musical process. But the two fell out, and the film was never released until now.

It's a loose affair, combining haphazardly identified people, places and events, shot between 1972 and 1974, mostly in Oklahoma. We see Russell in concert, attending a wedding, hanging out with fans. Russell was working on what would become Hank Wilson's Back, and he's deep into country gospel, old-timey music and the LP's sort-of namesake, Hank Williams. Several scenes depict Russell recording or noodling with various musicians, many of them much older and better-coiffed opposites of Russell's long-haired hippie crew.

But there's also folks philosophizing — about creativity, capitalism. A snake eats a chicken and a little girl sings Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World." There are on-the-dusty-street interviews with assorted Oklahomans, including a glass-eating man whom the film's press kit claims is famed fugitive D.B Cooper. A building is imploded and a couple talks about how things have changed. Oh, and George Jones and a short-haired Willie Nelson each performs one of his songs.

Russell fans should eat this up — scenes of the performer being dickish are well balanced by fantastic musical numbers. And so should fans of weird vintage Americana, as Blank (who died in 2013) delivers a free-form essay on America circa 1973, pairing the free-wheeling high life of a famous, iconoclastic performer with scenes from rural Oklahoma, each weird and normal in its own way.

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