NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Les Blank Remembered: A Well-Spent Life

The Late Documentary Filmmaker Was One of a Kind

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

American popular culture lost its premier music filmmaker when Les Blank died on April 7. He was also our leading food chronicler on film.

The key to Blank’s success was that he did not focus purely on the music or the food themselves. He did not just shoot concerts and cooks explaining their recipes. He concentrated on the cultures that created these music styles and cooking styles and on their proponents and the motives and impulses that drove them to create what they created.

So Blank was not just a visual stenographer of events, not just a chronicler of music concerts and food events. He explored American traditional and roots music and the things that went on around that music and the social scene that that music created around the music.

I went to my first Les Blank events when I lived in Austin because he came through there regularly. And these were truly social events. Blank did not just show up, unspool his latest film, take a couple of questions and then head for the VIP reception. He talked about his experiences with the film, his reasons for making it. He often cooked beforehand for his film visitors, as he did for the film Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, and then served his aromatic dishes to his audience. So a sort of unique Smell and Taste-O-Vision experience resulted.

He is probably best known for his film Burden of Dreams. It is an absorbing account of the obsessive German director Werner Herzog’s five-year struggle to film Fitzcarraldo. The later recreates an actual attempt to build an opera house deep in the Amazon jungles of South America. The center point of the movie involves dragging — by hand — an actual 320-ton steamship across a mountain. Burden is a full-length, absorbing film.

Blank’s fascination with Herzog also resulted in the curious short documentary, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. And that’s just what it is. Herzog, after losing a bet, actually cooks and eats his shoe at the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.

Blank’s unscripted documentaries about America’s musical cultures cover a full range of genres. There’s Appalachian, Creole, Cajun, Zydeco, blues, country, polka and other ethnic pockets.

Some personal favorites are A Well-Spent Life (about Texas country bluesman Mance Lipscomb), The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Ry Cooder and the Moula Banda Rhythm Kings. They focus on three masters of music working at their peak.

A common theme in Blank’s film is the worth of the individual, as exemplified in a music doc such as Sprout Wings and Fly about the life and work of Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell.

Similarly, The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists was a film about Gerald Gaxiola, who transformed himself into a cowboy artist and whose credo was “art is a religion, not a business.” His paintings and sculptures were one of a kind.

One of Blank’s quirkiest films was Gap-Toothed Women, which is about that very subject and is much more charming than the title suggests.