Leon Russell in A Poem Is A Naked Person

As one of the programmers of the annual DKTR Film and Music Festival, which is now in it’s 12th year, I have watched countless films on musicians, bands, regional music scenes, record stores, and significant characters who have been involved with music. One common denominator of these films is that the subject matter rarely stands alone. The fans, the places where they came from, the people who surround and work with them are all a very significant part of their stories and their music.

In Les Blank’s A Poem is a Naked Person, a film commissioned by and documenting Leon Russell’s making of his 1973 album Hank Wilson’s Back, we not only get to experience intimate recording sessions with the powerful piano genius Leon Russell, we also experience his fans, his interactions with fans, his friends, his fellow musicians and life in northeast Oklahoma in 1973. The film is as every bit as rambling, gritty, and passionate as our subject. There are very few staged interviews, the camera is left to capture all moments raw and objectively, from George Jones singing in the studio, to local residents catching catfish in the river. While there is an excitement every time you see Leon or one of the guest stars (Willie Nelson, George Jones, Mama Cass all make appearances) by the end of the film you find that the secondary characters are all just as impressionable.

While I've been a Leon Russell fan longer than I can remember, the film compelled me to really ruminate on who and what Russell’s music exactly is. An Oklahoma native there is no doubt that Russell’s music is deeply steeped in country and blues, but even in this film, where he is recording covers of country classics, you still wouldn’t really categorize him with the likes of country piano players or even that of blues or boogie woogie. Leon’s music is all of these things and more. While the argument has been made that rock ‘n’ roll stole from country and blues, it’s almost as if Leon has done the reverse, keeping his feet firmly planted in an authentic southern sound with the added swagger and momentum of rock ‘n’ roll, an approach that makes it all completely uniquely Leon.

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