Leon Russell's documentary premieres at SXSW 

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The grainy camera footage shows a young Leon Russell taking the stage in front of a lively crowd. It’s the early 1970s, and the Oklahoma rocker is starting to make a name for himself as a free-spirited performer who plays with abandon.

Russell’s hands dance over his piano, and the crowd is transfixed. More than 40 years after its creation, this footage from the documentary A Poem Is a Naked Person has finally been released to the public. It offers a piece of nostalgia and an intimate look at Oklahoma music history.

The film, originally directed by Les Blank, premiered recently at the South By Southwest film festival in Austin. Blank died in 2013 with this film sitting on a shelf, but his son, Harrod Blank, picked up the torch and brought it to life.

“That’s a question that we don’t need to worry about,” Harrod said when asked why it took so long to be released. “Let’s just celebrate what it is and keep moving.”

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There have been rumors of a falling-out between Russell and Les that prevented the film from official release, and, following the SXSW premier, Harrod was not eager to share more details on the delay.

But any animosity Russell, 72, had for the film that might have prevented its release seemed to be gone, as he was present for last week’s premier and delighted the crowd following a second showing with a lengthy Q&A.

“I was at my grandmother’s house one day and she had this record player by her bed, and I never thought of her as being musical,” Russell said, recalling things from his childhood in Oklahoma.

He was born in Lawton in 1942 and is often credited with constructing The Tulsa Sound in the 1950s and ’60s, which blended elements of rockabilly, soul, bluegrass, folk, country, blues and rock ’n’ roll.

“I saw this record on the player that went like this: ‘Is there blood up on your hands? Do you daily take his holy name in vain? By the things you do, you can crucify him too, and an evil life will never cleanse the stain,’” he said.
Russell said that type of gospel music shaped his musical ear. His music often features a coalescence of gospel and bluegrass, earning him the distinction as “a rock and roll Renaissance man” from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 2011.

A Poem Is a Naked Person (a title attributed to a Bob Dylan quote) follows Russell for two years as he tours, records music at his home in Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees in northeastern Oklahoma and performs with other prominent musicians. There are long stretches of performances by Russell, along with conversations that often take a philosophical tone.

“The experience of making this film was like dropping into a whole other world,” said Maureen Gosling, its sound designer during its filming from 1972 to 1974. “[Russell] would bring these bands in to use his studio, and he would bring in Freddie King, The O’Neal Twins, Phoebe Snow — all these people would be there, and we would get to be in these sessions.”

After its SXSW premiere, the film’s promotion team said it hopes to release it nationwide this summer, with plans for an Oklahoma showing.

“He was very expressive and didn’t hold anything back,” Gosling said about Russell. “I loved how he was always baring his soul.”

This story was previously published here.


Print headline: Into daylight, A documentary filmed more than 40 years ago finally gets a film premiere as its star, Leon Russell, visits the South by Southwest festival.

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