by Lee Roy Chapman -
After a few years on the road playing and producing concert documentaries with Joe Cocker (Mad Dogs and Englishmen, 1970) and George Harrison (Concert for Bangladesh 1972), Leon Russell was ready to shake the shackles of the music industry and return to his own turf in Northeastern Oklahoma. It was 1972 and his plan was to build a music empire, producing, recording, and distributing Rock N Roll. No more sharecropping with the big labels and local unions in Los Angeles. So, he bought a property in Tia Juana, Oklahoma, just a stone's throw from the Grand Lake O' the Cherokees, then imported a crew of Austinites to come north and build some cabins, finish out a studio, paint some psychedelic murals and start recording for his new label, Shelter Records. To document his DIY move, he and his manager Denny Cordell contacted the National Film Institute looking for a filmmaker. The NBI recommended a man name Les Blank.
As luck would have it, Les Blank and his assistant Maureen Gosilng, had just put the Creole music documentary, Dry Wood, in the can and were ready to begin post-production.
From an Jonathan Marlow interview with Les Blank published by Fandor 2007, Les Blank tells us how he came to live on Leon's "floating motel" while filming the Shelter scene for the next two years.
"Leon Russell was an up-and-coming rock star and his producer was so pleased with the results of the two films Leon had been in—Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs and Englishmen and The Concert for Bangladesh with Bob Dylan and George Harrison—that they thought, ‘Well, we’ll do another movie and maybe this will help him even more. Besides, we can document all the great and wonderful things this man is going to do with all the money he’s been making.’ They went to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles to ask them about filmmakers who could work with music and they happened to have two prints of mine that I’d submitted for one of the many failed grant attempts I ran through the place for their independent documentary fund. I forget what they called it. The producer saw the [The Blues Accordin’ to] Lightnin’ Hopkins and I think the Cajun film [Spend it All] and he thought I would be the right guy for the job. He called me up in Louisiana and said, ‘We want you to come do a film on Leon Russell.’ I didn’t know who Leon Russell was and I also didn’t know if I wanted to work with some big-name talent. I was invited to a film festival in Dallas and went down there from the festival. It was an easy hop from there to Tulsa so they bought me a ticket from Dallas to Tulsa and took me out to this place on the Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees, eighty miles north and east of Tulsa on the Arkansas-Kansas border in the Ozarks. Leon had decided to build this state-of-the-art rock and roll studio and there they would proceed. They had dreams of buying a TV station and making wonderful music…"
Wonderful music indeed. George Jones makes a "bugged-eyed" appearance at the Shelter lake house strumming an acoustic guitar and moaning "I'm so lonesome I could cry." The crew then heads to Nashville to hang with Grand Ole Opry legends Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff. Later, heading south to Texas, a clean-shaven but long-haired Willie Nelson appears live at the Floores Country Store. Then, traveling even further south to San Antonio, we are truly blessed with a spirit-filled and born-again African American Pentecostal church choir bring down the house.
As the story goes, Leon hated the finished film and never wanted it to be seen. Russell imposed legal restraints against Les' company Flower Films making it impossible to distribute and a pain-in-the-ass to hold a singular theatrical showing. Despite Russell's efforts, the film has shown at a few film festivals.
Les explains the complications to Fandor:
"I can’t show it except when I’m personally present at the screening and it’s at a non-profit institution. That’s the way the owner of the film wants it. When the film was finished, I figured that as long as I was there in Oklahoma, I’d live there for two years. They supplied me (and my assistant editor and sound-recordist at the time, Maureen [Gosling]) with a weekly paycheck and they fed us. We had a nice place to live on this lake and they had access to this speedboat and to their pickup truck. It was a rather idyllic situation and, after the first year, all the band members got fed up with the rustic living—with the snakes and the spiders and the rough road that their BMWs had trouble navigating—so they built a whole new forty-track recording studio in Tulsa in a church that they bought. They left me and Maureen and the caretakers and this wigged-out artist from Austin named Jim Franklin at the lake place for a solid year of resort living."
In 2010 after a discreet showing of the film in Los Angeles, acclaimed rock critic Sean Wilentz called the film "..one of the best rock & roll films I've ever seen."
After Les's passing in 2013, his son Harrod went to work. The final version is now complete and once again Leon and Les will be in Austin together, this time on the big screen.