Melbourne International Film Festival Review: A Poem Is A Naked Person (USA, 1974)

A Poem is a Naked Person was completed back in 1974 and has only found wide release in this year. That has to do with legal issues, or creative differences, or some other things, all of which means little to you and what you intend to watch. Suffice it to say that you can very much tell, from the Spicy Rice typeface onwards, that this is a 40 year old story.

To begin with, Leon Russell – a soul and country piano player with plumes of silver hair and beard – is ostensibly the subject of the documentary. At a time when rock stars most closely resembled prophets, we see him work a crowd of hippies into a frenzy of dancing and awe, and eulogise at recording sessions or over a doobie.

Though Russell commissioned this film, director Les Blank pays equal attention to the locals of Oklahoma. The organiser of a sky-diving festival, for instance, or a couple who film the demolitions of buildings. One sequence has an artist turning the bottom of an empty swimming pool into a psychedelic mural, but only after he collects, safely in a jar, the scorpions that live there.

Though long since recorded, some of these scenes are vividly alive. Partly because people in this remote community weren’t so conveniently entertained, hence the sky-diving. And partly because they would have rarely seen a movie camera (by today’s standards), so they are often naively honest, with Blank going to great lengths to provoke them.

Blank, himself, spends little time in front of the camera, but this film is as much about him than anything else. He loves wildlife, and sunsets, and water, and parties. Sometimes these images are served raw, and sometimes they are layered with Russell’s sermons, or songs, or someone else talking.

He lingers a little longer on an attractive woman’s legs than would be considered innocent. You may call that misogynistic, but this film feels too personal for politics. We see the world through his eyes. Blank is an admirer of Leon Russell’s musical talent and showmanship, but is a man with art and perspective all his own.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

A Poem Is A Naked Person screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 8th and 12th. Tickets are selling fast. For more details head to: http://miff.com.au/program/film/a-poem-is-a-naked-person