Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker

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Review by Michael Mackenzie

Recently featured in the Backbeat Music Documentary section of the Melbourne International Film Festival, this film of an extraordinarily talented New Orleans pianist will also be showing at Don’t Knock The Rock in Los Angeles on September 1 and at Pop Montreal on September 25.

New Orleans jazz pianist James Booker must have made a bad deal with the Devil – how else does someone with such an astonishing talent, have to pay such a price?

Watching ‘Bayou Maharajah,’ Lily Keber’s documentary on this most mercurial of musicians, is to watch the arc of a cannonball – fired from the barrel as a young classical prodigy, Booker effortlessly combined Chopin and Professor Longhair in a single bar, only to fall far short of the success he deserved due to addiction, mental illness, and a criminal lack of local (US) recognition.

It’s telling that all the live footage within this film comes from his time touring Europe, when the audiences, the industry and the venues saw James Booker for what he really was – a spellbinding musician.

And through a series of telling interviews of New Orleans legends, Keber assembles a portrait of a brilliant artist in free fall – Booker himself, was his own worst enemy.

Friend and musical collaborator Dr John famously describes Booker as ‘the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.’

Amidst the incredible bursts of musical energy stories abound of Booker’s erratic onstage behaviour, long rants espousing his latest conspiracy theory, being paid in drugs, vomiting on the piano – and yet threaded through all this comes the immense respect for the man’s synthesis of musical forms into something truly original.

Allan Toussaint exposes the dark and light of Booker by confirming his genius at the keyboard and also his ability to play great saxophone. Toussaint finishes the story by saying he should know – Booker stole his sax and pawned it.

Then there are the wonderful tales of how James Booker lost that eye where the doco mischievously cuts between the various accounts Booker spun around himself. It goes on and on as friends, musicians and admirers build up a head of steam. Did it really have something to do with Ringo Starr?

In ferreting out never before seen footage of Booker in conversation and performance, Keber uncovers an often lonely figure, shunned for his sexuality, behaviour and the colour of his skin.

She also fulfils the incredibly important role of rescuing decaying celluloid of New Orleans itself –scenes of 1960s neighbourhood life and night club doorways scored with Bookers deeply evocative solo piano.

This documentary doesn’t need to be seen on the big screen, but it does need to be seen. Then go and listen to the music. James Carroll Booker III died of renal failure whilst waiting for hospital treatment in 1983. He was just 43 years old.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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