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Les Blank (November 27, 1935 – April 7, 2013) was an American documentary filmmaker best known for his portraits of American traditional musicians.

Les Blank
Les Blank.jpg
Blank at 43rd KVIFF in 2008
BornNovember 27, 1935
DiedApril 7, 2013(2013-04-07) (aged 77)
Alma materTulane University
University of Southern California
OccupationDocumentary filmmaker


Life and careerEdit

Blank attended Phillips Academy, and Tulane University in New Orleans, where he received a B.A. in English literature and a Master of Fine Arts in theater. He also studied communications at the University of Southern California.[1][2] Following his university education, he worked for a production company called Operation Success, making films that he would later describe as "insipid films that promote business and industry." He founded his own production company, Flower Films, in 1967 with the release of God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance, a short colorful document of Los Angeles' Elysian Park Love-in. This was followed by The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (1968) and The Sun's Gonna Shine (1968) about Houston blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins. He never went back to work making industrial films and all of his films were independently produced, often with the assistance of grants from cultural agencies, both governmental and non-governmental.

Most of his films focused on American traditional music forms, including (among others) blues, Appalachian, Cajun, Creole, Tex-Mex, polka, tamburitza, and Hawaiian music. Many of these films represent the only filmed documents of musicians who are now deceased.

Blank's films focusing on musical subjects often spent much of their running time focusing not on the music itself but on the music's cultural context, portraying the surroundings from which these American roots musics come.

Other notable films on non-musical subjects include a film about garlic and another about gap-toothed women, as well as two films about German film director Werner Herzog: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) and Burden of Dreams (1982), the latter about the filming of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (1994) and Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella (1995) were Blank's last two films using 16mm film. He later worked in digital video. His last film, All in This Tea, which was co-directed by Gina Leibrecht, was a profile of the western Marin County-based tea importer and adventurer David Lee Hoffman. In 2007 Blank was awarded the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal in the Arts.

Les's son, Harrod Blank, has also become a documentary filmmaker.

Blank lived in the Berkeley Hills. For more than 30 years he was a resident of Berkeley, which celebrated Les Blank Day on Jan 22, 2013. His company, Flower Films, is based in El Cerrito, Contra Costa County, California. Blank died of bladder cancer at his Berkeley Hills home on April 7, 2013.[3]


Blank was the first documentary filmmaker to earn the Edward MacDowell Medal, a national honor given to one artist a year. He was also awarded the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award for outstanding lifetime achievement as an independent filmmaker. In 2011, the International Documentary Association honored Blank with a career achievement award.[4]

Two months prior to Blank's death, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival announced that Blank had been accepted to receive its 2013 Outstanding Achievement Award along with a retrospective of his work at the festival, which took place from April 25 to May 5, 2013.[5]

Chulas Fronteras and Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers were selected by the National Film Registry; former 1993 and latter 2004.


The moving image collection of Les Blank is held at the Academy Film Archive.[6] The Academy Film Archive has preserved numerous Les Blank's films including, A Well Spent Life, Always for Pleasure, and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.[7]


  • 1960 - Running Around Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
  • 1960–1985 - Six Short Films of Les Blank
  • 1961, - Strike!
  • 1962 - And Freedom Came?!
  • 1965 - Dizzy Gillespie
  • 1967 - Christopher Tree
  • 1968 - The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins
  • 1968 - God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance
  • 1969 - The Arch
  • 1969 - The Sun's Gonna Shine
  • 1970 - Chicken Real
  • 1971 - Spend It All
  • 1971 - A Well Spent Life
  • 1973 - Dry Wood
  • 1973 - Hot Pepper
  • 1974 - A Poem Is a Naked Person
  • 1976 - Chulas Fronteras
  • 1978 - More Fess
  • 1978 - Always for Pleasure
  • 1979 - Del Mero Corazon
  • 1980 - Poto and Cabengo (cinematographer)
  • 1980 - Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe
  • 1980 - Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers
  • 1982 - Burden of Dreams
  • 1983 - Sprout Wings and Fly
  • 1984 - In Heaven There Is No Beer?
  • 1985 - Cigarette Blues
  • 1986 - Huey Lewis and the News: Be-Fore!
  • 1987 - Gap-Toothed Women
  • 1987 - Ziveli! Medicine for the Heart
  • 1988 - A Blank Buffet
  • 1988 - Ry Cooder and the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces
  • 1989 - The Best of Blank
  • 1989 - J'ai Été Au Bal / I Went to the Dance
  • 1990 - Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking
  • 1991 - Innocents Abroad
  • 1991 - Julie: Old Time Tales of the Blue Ridge
  • 1991 - Marc & Ann
  • 1991 - Puamana
  • 1994 - The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists
  • 1994 - My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge
  • 1994 - Roots of Rhythm (cinematographer)
  • 1995 - Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella
  • 2005 - The Maestro Rides Again
  • 2007 - All in This Tea (co-directed with Gina Leibrecht)
  • 2014 - How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy (co-directed with Gina Leibrecht)
  • 1974/2015 - A Poem Is A Naked Person
  • 1967/2015 - Thailand Moment
  • 2015 - Les Blank's Student Films


  1. ^ Notable Alumni, USC School of Cinematic Arts Archived August 26, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ About this Person: Les Blank, Allmovie, NY Times.
  3. ^ Whiting, Sam (April 7, 2013). "Documentary filmmaker Les Blank, 77, dies". San Francisco Chronicle.
  4. ^ Taylor Segrest, "2011 Career Achievement Award--Visionary Wayfarer: Les Blank", Documentary Magazine, Winter 2012.
  5. ^ Benzine, Adam (5 February 2013). "Hot Docs to honour Blank". Playback. Brunico Communications. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  6. ^ "Les Blank Collection". Academy Film Archive.
  7. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.

External linksEdit