‘A Poem is a Naked Person’ reminds us why Tulsa needed a Leon Russell memorial
Historian Steve Todoroff remembers something he said to Jan Bridges, Leon Russell’s widow, after a memorial service for her late husband two years ago: “You know what? We need to really plan for a permanent monument here in Tulsa, so people can come pay their respects, also, to have a place for his remains.”
On Nov. 10, Tulsans are invited to the public unveiling and dedication of the Leon Russell monument at Memorial Park Cemetery. Following this commemoration, Circle Cinema will screen “A Poem Is a Naked Person” (2015), a documentary about the beloved Tulsa Sound icon, with a special introduction by Todoroff.
It took two years of fundraising to make the monument a reality, but “A Poem” has a longer history.
At Russell’s request, documentary filmmaker Les Blank trailed the musician and friends from 1972 to 1974. The result is a mixture of live footage and sessions at Russell’s studio on Grand Lake, with candid shots of eccentric Okies, hippies, and Green Country festivities. Russell seems a “stranger in a strange land” in Blank’s bizarre film. Unsubtle commentaries on class division and consumerism are conjured by clever editing rather than stemming from Russell or his music.
The film is a peripheral depiction of Russell at work, with several scenes that are almost personal. We experience the artist, but no more deeply than a fan in the crowd. For this reason, Russell wouldn’t allow Blank to release the film during his lifetime. The filmmaker passed away in 2013, and his son Harrod Blank negotiated its release two years later.
Blank’s concert and studio footage is priceless, blending his vérité collage style and Russell’s holy presence. Live, Russell was more than an entertainer—his songs were invocations, reminiscent of a spirit-filled preacher before his congregation.
The Hank Wilson’s Back session footage shines. But studio appearances by George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Eric Andersen don’t reflect back on Russell—aside from a memorable argument with Andersen. Blank’s hands-off approach to documentary, combined with Russell’s distance, feels sluggish onscreen. But “A Poem” is still worth watching, for Russell’s ghostlike charisma and as an Oklahoma cultural artifact.
Todoroff recalled Russell’s change of heart regarding the release of the film, saying that his viewing of “Saving Mr. Banks” was largely responsible. The true story of Walt Disney’s pursuit of the rights to P. L. Travers’ book “Mary Poppins” spoke to Russell.
“Leon said he got to thinking, and he was doing the same thing the author did in the movie. So, he decided that even if it wasn’t in his best interest—maybe he didn’t like how he looked in the movie—but, for his fans’ sake and for the people that had been following him all these years and had been wanting to see that film, he decided to say ‘yes,’ because it was probably the right thing to do.”
Do the right thing. Go pay your respects to Russell, and then see his cinematic revival.