Film Review: Bayou Maharajah - The Life of New Orleans piano Legend James Booker (LJF)

Bayou Maharajah
(Feature-length documentary film about New Orleans piano legend James Booker. Screened at Barbican - 2013 LJF. Review by Kai Hoffman)

In much the same fashion as Lily Keber, director of the award-winning new film “Bayou Maharajah,” I hadn’t heard of James Booker - the man who Dr. John called “"the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced” - until a friend of mine turned me on to his music recently.

In her eloquent director’s statement about Bayou Maharajah, Lily Keber says that “James Booker was, first and foremost, one of America’s finest and most innovative musicians. But as a gay, bipolar Black man with one eye and a drug and alcohol problem, Booker was never going to make it to prime time. Yet in spite of all that – or perhaps because of it – his music pushes the boundaries of what is possible on the piano with an intricacy that surpasses Chopin. It was this complexity that attracted me to Booker. I needed to find out how a man could be both barely tolerated and completely loved – and how his music might make that possible.”

The film is an unbiased, earthy, well-edited and wild ride through the life, times, musical genius and tragic difficulties of James Booker - from an early classical music education and performance experience in Gospel churches, Booker began touring extensively as a side man with famous performers from Fats Domino to Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles and Ringo Starr, to name just a handful. He was then offered his first solo recording contract, toured around Europe and produced three albums inspite of bi-polar illness and drug addiction.

The story is told through photographs, interviews with James Booker himself, his most famous piano student, Harry Connick, Jr. (who Booker apparently got to know because of a desire to stay on the right side of the law, as Harry Connick, Sr. was the District Attorney for New Orleans), and numerous others, including Allen Toussaint, Hugh Laurie and Irma Thomas. There are even explanations of how Booker managed to play the way he did - like an entire band, like someone with three hands, a truly pioneering pianist... and sometimes he did the whole performance in his underpants.

With many different levels of appeal, this film is highly fascinating on a universal scale, whether you’re a musician or not - and deserves to go very, very far. It’s incredibly well-researched, cheeky, and completely addictive viewing.

Go see this whirlwind of a film, about a child-prodigy turned New Orleans piano legend who - with Keber’s extensive research - has been brought back from near-obscurity.

 It’s playing at the Lexi Cinema here in London on December 1st. Here’s the link.  

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