Reel Indie Film Festival Review: Bayou Maharajah (2013)

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Cast: 
Director: Lily Keber
Country: USA
Genre: Documentary | History | Music
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Reel Indie Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit http://reelindiefilmfest.com/ and follow the event on Twitter at @RIFF_Toronto. Bayou Maharajah screens on Sunday, October 20 at The Royal in Toronto.

As a city, New Orleans bleeds music like no other. Music is at its core, in its clubs, and spilling into its streets. Jazz, blues, classical, or anything else that catches your fancy can be found in The Big Easy, so it is really no surprise that the city gave birth to James Booker, the self-titled Black Liberace who mastered all musical forms. Bayou Maharajah, director Lily Keber’s new documentary tracking the life and career of Booker, understands its subject because it seems, fundamentally, to grasp how central a role music played in his life, in his culture, and in the city he loved.

Bayou Maharajah is bursting at the seams with the sounds of its subject, and his mixture of boisterous jazz and soulful blues contributes heavily to the film’s tone. It’s easier for Keber to capture her subject when he is laying himself bare throughout the film, as an unstable genius, a piano prodigy, and a virtuoso performer across genres, decades, and continents.

bayou2-1The film is helped substantially by heaps of archival footage of Booker performing, in his home town, on the road, and even in Europe where he found greater popularity than he ever saw on his native shores. The raw performance footage is supplemented by period-appropriate snippets of life in New Orleans, as well as heaps of photographs to supplement when only audio of Booker’s performances survive. Bayou Maharajah is bursting at the seams with the sounds of its subject, and his mixture of boisterous jazz and soulful blues contributes heavily to the film’s tone. It’s easier for Keber to capture her subject when he is laying himself bare throughout the film, as an unstable genius, a piano prodigy, and a virtuoso performer across genres, decades, and continents.

In his time, Booker played with Little Richard, Dave Bartholomew, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and Ray Charles, turned down an invitation to play a private party for The Rolling Stones, and became something of a legend in musical circles even as he remained doggedly underappreciated by the mainstream. The film supplements its performance footage with talking head interviews from many people who knew Booker well, from composers to fellow musicians to old friends. These include Allen Toussaint, Harry Connick Jr., and Dr. John, who famously proclaimed Booker, “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” These interviewees share stories both touching and hilarious of Booker’s brilliance at the piano, his kindness, his frenetic personality, and his many eccentricities. Though Booker lost an eye somehow, exactly what caused this is shrouded in mystery, with speculation including a fight with Ringo Starr, a bar brawl, an encounter with the CIA, a debt owed to The Mob, and a negotiation with record executives.

The film occasionally strays slightly from Booker to glance at the wider New Orleans scene, but mostly it retains an admirably tight focus on its subject. For a man who has been dead 30 years, Booker barely strays from the screen at all, bantering with audiences, mouthing off in interviews, and singing and singing and singing. He may not survive, but the film makes him feel alive nonetheless. 

The film occasionally strays slightly from Booker to glance at the wider New Orleans scene, but mostly it retains an admirably tight focus on its subject. For a man who has been dead 30 years, Booker barely strays from the screen at all, bantering with audiences, mouthing off in interviews, and singing and singing and singing. He may not survive, but the film makes him feel alive nonetheless. The joy he takes in performance is infectious, and it is impossible not to fall a little bit in love with James Booker by the film’s end. Keber’s investment in her subject is apparent, and she manages to make the film both a straight biography and something far more interesting. Bayou Maharajah relays the facts of Booker’s life, yes, but more than that it seems to seek out the soul of the man, the restless, tortured, prolific and indefatigable genius behind that star-adorned eye patch. Whether it is analyzing Booker’s style to get at his strengths and his innovations, dissecting his struggles with heroin and alcohol, or just lingering on footage of the man performing in his prime, this is a film that captures more than a career, defines more than a lifetime, and cares about more than a legacy. Bayou Maharajah lets an artist render himself through his work, sketching in the edges when needed, but mostly lighting the man’s candelabra and watching him work his own private wonders on the stage.

[notification type=”star”]78/100 ~ GOOD.  Keber’s investment in her subject is apparent, and she manages to make the film both a straight biography and something far more interesting. Bayou Maharajah relays the facts of Booker’s life, yes, but more than that it seems to seek out the soul of the man, the restless, tortured, prolific and indefatigable genius behind that star-adorned eye patch. [/notification]

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About Author

Jordan Ferguson is a lifelong pop culture fan, and would probably never leave his couch if he could get away with it. When he isn’t wasting time “practicing law" in Los Angeles, he writes about film, television, and music. In addition to serving as TV Editor and Senior Staff Film Critic for Next Projection, Jordan is a contributor to various outlets, including his own personal site, Review To Be Named (where he still writes sometimes, promise). Check out more of his work at Reviewtobenamed.com, follow him on twitter @bobchanning, or just yell really loudly on the street. Don’t worry, he’ll hear.