Whiskery and restless, grooving and grotesque, the documentarian Les Blank's long-suppressed film plays like your memories of some mad, stoned last-century summer. Commissioned by the boogie-woogie piano bluesman Leon Russell, who is more this roaming doc's fitful center of gravity than its star, A Poem immerses us in the woozy particulars of Russell's life and music in 1974 -- and even more than that it immerses us in the world Russell came from. Scenes of the construction of Russell's recording studio complex on Oklahoma's Grand Lake o' the Cherokees quickly become about the lake itself, how the sunlight butters and dances across its surface, or about Oklahomans getting a load of the Russell carnival.
Then we watch painter Jim Franklin work up an undersea mural on the walls of a swimming pool, but only after seeing him trap and jar scorpions. Later, Franklin feeds a baby chick to his boa constrictor. Blank cuts from the chick's orange-pink foot, sticking out of the snake's mouth, to the demolition of Tulsa's Bliss Hotel, to security backstage at a Russell show telling the camera crew they're in a restricted area.
There's lots of talk, sometimes from the cranky and hilarious Russell, who in one sharp scene toys with the hurt feelings of singer-songwriter Eric Andersen. But the vibe is mostly cheery, especially in the studio. Russell was working on his first country album, Hank Wilson's Back.
Russell himself kiboshed the release of this film for 40 years, even as Blank, one of our great documentarians, became increasingly convinced A Poem might be a masterpiece. That becomes the key drama: What in this celebration of Seventies country funkiness might Russell have objected to?