Bayou Maharajah: Film Review

Winning doc features a can't-miss subject and plenty of performance footage.

New Orleans greats tell the story of one of the city's most influential pianists.

AUSTIN — A textbook case in which personal eccentricities and addictions collide with musical brilliance, the story of New Orleans pianist James Booker is so colorful it's hard to believe nobody has made a biopic yet. That might change after Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, Lily Keber's doc suggesting just how entertaining spending time with Booker must have been and how exasperating it was to be his friend. A must-see for aficionados of New Orleans jazz, it's also accessible to viewers who don't know a Professor Longhair from a Dr. John.

Local elder statesman Allen Toussaint, after fretting that the word is overused, labels Booker "a true genius;" a helpful illustration by Harry Connick, Jr. (who was devoted to Booker from early childhood) shows the complexity of his playing style -- from his "Chopinesque" method of resolving notes to the way his right hand always found extra ways to add adornment to already busy melodies.


Born close enough to the death of Jelly Roll Morton that he could later claim to have reincarnated the piano pioneer's gift, Booker was a child prodigy who began backing up stars around the age of 16. Soon emancipating himself from his family, he went on to play with artists ranging from Little Richard and Aretha Frankin to Jerry Garcia. He had hits under his own name, as well, with one, 1960's "Gonzo," allegedly inspiring fan Hunter S. Thompson's later use of the term.

His introduction to narcotics was innocent but immeasurably harmful: He was given morphine as a child when an ambulance hit him and shattered his leg. Another injury, the loss of his left eye, is less easily explained: Interviewees recount at least a dozen stories he told over the years, ranging from mundane debt-collector tales to extravagant fictions involving Jackie Kennedy and Ringo Starr.

Booker spent most of his adult life addicted to drugs and alcohol but would have found it difficult to fit into polite society even without that burden. He was gay, something of a conspiracy theorist and given to leaving irreplaceable master recordings in the back seats of taxis. But he kept making music, and Keber offers generous chunks of performance footage to augment a rollicking soundtrack.

Production Company: Mairzy Doats Productions

Director: Lily Keber

Producers: Lily Keber, Nathaniel Kohn

Executive producers: Mark Sperling, Steven Rose, Kathleen Zaworski-Burke, Dick Connette, Greg Fleeman, Randy Fertel

Director of photography: David S. White

Editors: Tim Watson, Aimee Toledano

Sales: Steven Beer

No rating, 93 minutes