Les Blank (November 27, 1935 – April 7, 2013) was an American documentary filmmaker best known for his portraits of American traditional musicians.[1]

Les Blank
Les Blank
Blank at 43rd KVIFF in 2008
Leslie Harrod Blank Jr.

November 27, 1935
DiedApril 7, 2013(2013-04-07) (aged 77)
Berkeley Hills, California
Alma materTulane University
University of Southern California
OccupationDocumentary filmmaker

Life and careerEdit

Leslie Harrod Blank Jr. was born November 27, 1935 in Tampa, Florida.[2][3] He attended Phillips Academy, and Tulane University in New Orleans, where he received a B.A. degree in English.[4] He also briefly attended University of California, Berkeley.[2][5] In the early 1960s, Blank studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California and received his master's degree.[5][6]

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." In 1967 he founded his own production company, Flower Films, 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.

Blank in Delacroix, Louisiana in 1981

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. One of his last films, All in This Tea, which was co-directed with his creative partner Gina Leibrecht, was a profile of the western Marin County-based tea importer and adventurer David Lee Hoffman. In 2014, his last film How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy was completed shortly after his death by Gina Leibrecht, and was a portrait of the co-founder of Direct Cinema, Richard Leacock. 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 and for more than 30 years he was a resident of Berkeley, which celebrated Les Blank Day on Jan 22, 2013.[7][3] His company, Flower Films, was based in El Cerrito, Contra Costa County, California.[7]

Blank died of bladder cancer at his Berkeley Hills home on April 7, 2013.[8]


Blank was the first documentary filmmaker to earn the Edward MacDowell Medal in 2007, a national honor given to one artist a year.[3] He was awarded in 1990 the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award for outstanding lifetime achievement as an independent filmmaker.[9] In 2011, the International Documentary Association honored Blank with a career achievement award.[10]

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.[11]


The moving image collection of Les Blank is held at the Academy Film Archive.[12] The Academy Film Archive has preserved numerous Les Blank films including A Well Spent Life, Always for Pleasure, and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.[13]


  • 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 - Battle of the Guitars [12]
  • 1985 - Cigarette Blues
  • 1986 - Huey Lewis and the News: Be-Fore!
  • 1987 - Gap-Toothed Women[14]
  • 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

National Film Registry inductee (former 1993; latter 2004)


  1. ^ Les Blank: Always for Pleasure (1968)|The Criterion Collection
  2. ^ a b Weber, Bruce (2013-04-07). "Les Blank, Filmmaker of America's Periphery, Dies at 77". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-09-10.
  3. ^ a b c "The Making of Les Blank Day". KQED Arts. January 22, 2013. Retrieved 2019-09-10.
  4. ^ Russell, Tony (2013-04-12). "Les Blank obituary". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-09-10.
  5. ^ a b "A Well Spent Life: Les Blank, In Memoriam". bampfa.org. Retrieved 2019-09-10.
  6. ^ Notable Alumni, USC School of Cinematic Arts Archived August 26, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ a b Taylor, Tracey (2013-01-22). "Berkeley documentary filmmaker Les Blank to be honored". Berkeleyside. Retrieved 2019-09-10.
  8. ^ Whiting, Sam (April 7, 2013). "Documentary filmmaker Les Blank, 77, dies". San Francisco Chronicle.
  9. ^ Traub, Barbara Fischman (2006). Desert to Dream: A Decade of Burning Man Photography. Immedium. p. 157. ISBN 978-1597020039.
  10. ^ Taylor Segrest, "2011 Career Achievement Award--Visionary Wayfarer: Les Blank", Documentary Magazine, Winter 2012.
  11. ^ Benzine, Adam (5 February 2013). "Hot Docs to honour Blank". Playback. Brunico Communications. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  12. ^ a b "Les Blank Collection". Academy Film Archive.
  13. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  14. ^ Canby, Vincent (1987-09-16). "Film: 'Gap-Toothed Women,' 'Miss . . . or Myth?'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-09-09.

External linksEdit