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  • Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker | Review

    SXSW FILM 2013

    By | March 19, 2013


    Director: Lily Keber

    Starring: Harry Connick Jr., Hugh Laurie, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Charles Neville, Douglas Brinkley

    James Booker is a name that most people aren’t familiar with. Hell, I listen to a lot of old blues and jazz music and it’s a name I wasn’t that familiar with. And that’s a shame. Because as Lily Keber’s stunning new documentary makes clear, Booker was a musical genius and one hell of a character. As Dr. John colorfully describes the man, he was “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” The fact that Booker is not better known, which is in and of itself something of an indictment of our society, can partially be contributed to the opportunities for marginalization his race, sexual orientation and disability provided. But to be frank, the man’s drug addictions and mental instability were probably the biggest factors in sidelining his recording career and limiting his chances for a bigger popular breakthrough. But we all know that genius and madness aren’t far removed and I have few doubts that growing up gay, black and genius in the mid-20th century South would be enough to drive most people to drug addiction and insanity.

    As for a little back-story on Booker, he was the son of a Baptist minister and music was always part of his life. He learned piano at an early age and had a regional hit at age 14 before going on to tour with and do session work for artists such as Fats Domino, Lloyd Price and Little Richard. In 1960, he had his first hit with an instrumental tune “Gonzo,” a heroin-inspired song, the title of which was borrowed by journalist Hunter Thompson. But soon enough Booker’s career was derailed by drug addiction and while he continued to play he only recorded sporadically throughout his life, which ended, due to renal failure, and with little fanfare outside of New Orleans, on November 8, 1983. While Booker may never have achieved national fame, his shocking talent and genius were such that he, along with Professor Longhair, is arguably the most inventive and influential New Orleans pianist of them all.

    Keber’s touching and engrossing documentary includes tons of amazing archival pictures and video as well as audio recordings of Booker’s performances. While the quality of some of the audio isn’t the highest and some of the pictures and video can be grainy, it all works perfectly to give the viewer a warm sense of the man and his music. The film also includes interview footage with legendary musicians such as Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and Harry Connick, Jr., whose father was a New Orleans district attorney and had “professional dealings” (and personal) with Booker on a regular basis. Connick Jr’s interview footage is some of the most moving and illuminating, as he grew up with Booker around the house and part of his life, and it’s clear that Booker was someone he admired both personally and musically growing up. In one of the best scenes of the documentary, Connick attempts to describe Booker’s playing style by saying that his left hand began with Chopin while his right was free to play with octaves and rolled notes, demonstrating for the viewer how Booker would add notes and unusual chords to create a unique and hard to imitate sound.

    The film’s telling of the “story” of Booker’s loss of his left eye, which he covered with a variety of flamboyant eye patches, perfectly captures the man himself. You get clips of various people telling different versions of the story, there are dozens out there, one involving Ringo Starr, another involving a pair of pliers and there’s Dr. John’s explanation that it had “something to do with Jackie Kennedy.” It seems that Booker in many ways was a complex and fragile man of mystery and not someone that could be contained by any one label. Gay, yes. Black, yes. Junkie, yes. Volatile, yes. Tragic, yes. Piano genius, yes. He was all of these and so much more. And the fact that his life was such a struggle and that his name is not better known is probably a damning testament to this country’s poor state of mental health care and shameful record of racial and sexual inequality. Hopefully Keber’s lovingly crafted, low budget labor of love will go a long ways towards providing Booker with some of the recognition, respect and most importantly, love, that he failed to receive during his lifetime.

    Rating: 9/10

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