“I don’t do mystery,” Leon Redbone tells the camera at the half-way mark of Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.
He says it with a straight face, but every other moment of the documentary underscores just how much of an enigma the musician was. He was a book with the first few chapters torn out and hidden away. A puzzle that fascinated friends, fans and fellow musicians.
And filmmaker Mako Funasaka.
“He was very mysterious,” Mako told Grant Stovel earlier this week.
“And he would tell you he wasn’t mysterious. He just didn’t want to talk about things that were not relevant.”
The documentary, made by the aptly-named Riddle Films, was shot over the course of a few days and released last year. Following Leon’s death earlier this month, Mako decided to put the entire film on Youtube.
The pair met while Mako was working with Riddle Films, a production company that was hired to create a promotional video for one of Leon’s Toronto performances. Over the course of the project, the producers — Liam Romalis and Jason Charters — approached the musician with the idea of making a documentary.
“We wanted to make a long-form documentary, but it was difficult to get financing for a long-form documentary. So it wound up to be a short documentary,” Mako said.
“It kind of evolved … to concentrating on basically one weekend in the ’70s when he played the Mariposa Folk Festival.”
Mako says while Leon was already a successful musician by that festival, the weekend brought Leon a lot of attention. Mainly due to some famous fans that came to watch him play.
“I think whenever Bob Dylan comes to see you, you know that it’s special. Gordon Lightfoot was also there. John Prine was there. They were seeking him out.”
“It wasn’t long after that he appeared on Saturday Night Live, he was on the first couple of seasons.”
Despite being a successful musician with a career spanning decades, Leon’s origins are still unknown. When asked about his real name, his childhood or really anything that happened before he first started appearing on stages around Toronto, he usually demurred. When he did give an answer, it was an obvious joke. Even the announcement of his death kept the ruse going, stating that he was 127 years old — only off by a half-century and change.
The temptation for a documentary filmmaker would be to try and unravel the puzzle and find the ‘real’ Leon Redbone. But Mako said he was never interested in investigating Leon’s past.
“We never thought it was important to try and reveal his real name and all that. The point was to present him as he presented himself,” he said.
“If you spent any time with him, that’s who he actually was. That wasn’t a put-on. People always thought he was trying to be somebody or trying to hide something. But I never got that feeling.”