Ask Leon Russell a straight question — say, about the documentary made about him in the early Seventies that’s just now seeing the light of day — and the iconoclastic singer-songwriter’s answer will eventually wind its way back to the subject after rambling down the crookedest of backroads. “We had a guy at the studio at the time, a harmonica player,” he begins. “And one day he put a mic on his heart and started playing harmonica. He played more and more as his heartbeat got faster and faster, until he finally passed out.” Russell pauses, eyes unseen behind mirrored sunglasses as he sits in a hotel lounge. “Kind of a weird story. I don’t know the reason why I thought of that. But it’s kind of like that movie.”
Actually, he’s not that far off. A Poem Is a Naked Person, which reaches theaters for the first time nearly 43 years after it started filming, is the sort of free-form rock doc that’s happy to follow whatever catches the camera’s eye. Made while Russell was recording demos for his rowdy 1973 album Hank Wilson’s Back, the movie captures the musician playing several fever-pitched shows and jamming with the cream of Nashville’s session-player crop; George Jones and Willie Nelson stop by for a few jaw-dropping cameos. But it’s also the type of fly-on-the-wall portrait of an artist that’s likely to cut away from performances mid-song to visit Russell’s eccentric neighbors, attend a building implosion in downtown Tulsa, and watch a snake swallow a chick whole. “It looks more like a travelogue than a Leon movie,” the singer says.
The project started back in the early Seventies when filmmaker Les Blank (The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins) and his assistant Maureen Gosling had an offer from Russell’s then-partner Denny Cordell to make a documentary on the Oklahoma-based songwriter. Having just finished a shoot, the couple were in need of another project; soon, they found themselves setting up shop on Russell’s lakeside compound, in a studio previously purposed for something called “Pappy Reeve’s Floating Motel and Fish Camp.” They wound up staying for two years, working through cuts of the film and springing to action whenever folks came over to play music. “He had this huge editing lab set up in one of the floating hotel rooms,” the musician says of Blank. “It was true hippie stuff all the way down the line.”
The now 73-year-old musician starts tugging at his long, wispy beard before launching into an anecdote. “I remember an instance up there at the lake, Bob Dylan came up to visit me,” he says. “I took him out in my boat, and then I came back to get some gas from this little old lady. She walked up, looked at Bob and pointed at me and said, ‘Do you know this guy’s famous all over the world?'” Gosling, sitting across from him, giggles at the punchline before remembering the visit from a different vantage. “[Dylan] didn’t want to be filmed because he was out in the country — he figured he was away from all the hubbub. I remember going into the control room in the studio and he was hiding behind the door. Les said it felt like having a butterfly on his tripod, being unable to film Bob Dylan.”