Genius and addictions litter the sidewalks of this city. Despite their frequent combination, the odds of their shared survival are low; too many dark doors beckon and never close. Chronicles of their joint triumphs and blunt dead-ends usually remain at the bar, slurred as legend, too messy for effective narrative. Recently premiered at SXSW, Bayou Maharajah refuses idolatry and sandblasts the caricature, showing us just how beautiful and difficult it was to call Booker a friend.
James Carroll Booker III was born in Charity Hospital in 1939 and he died there in 1983. In between, Booker’s life was an odyssey of brilliance and self-sabotage, a perfect-pitch voice saddled with broken dentures. He was an R&B child prodigy, a Dew Drop Inn stuffer, an open homosexual, a magnificent wordsmith and interpreter, a life-changing blessing and train wreck for countless friends and associates. Technically, his work confounds classification but continues to fascinate fellow musicians. If there were a New Orleans piano player Mt. Rushmore, Booker would be on it.
The countless misadventures and moods of our hero present a challenge for a filmmaker, but Booker loyalists will have a hard time arguing with the relevant legends and artifacts contained herein. Footage from his childhood in Bay St. Louis shares space with an animated segment on the nine year-old Booker’s ambulance accident and fateful exposure to morphine. We hear every version (almost) of “How Booker Lost His Eye” and learn the origins of each of his albums. Ephemera reveal new jokes: a Detective Faulkner was the arresting officer when Booker got busted outside the Dew Drop. We see Booker paranoid and near-violent in Europe; we hear the resounding applause of a Swiss audience and wish he’d stayed abroad.
Yet none of this would hold together without two crucial accomplishments. First, Keber limits herself to a roster of interviewees whose connections to Booker are both deep and complicated. No one–from Bunny Matthews to Harry Connick, Jr. to Harry Connick, Sr.–gives you the wild story without a few bars of lament. They remain in awe of the man, and frustrated by his demise. This balance is essential to understanding Booker’s imbalance and its consequences. These people (almost all men) still love him and laugh about him, marvel at his unbelievable creativity, but continue to shake their heads, speechless at his disaster. You feel you’re among neither fans nor collaborators, but assembled brothers who mourn a lost soul so raw and dazzling, it barely seems gone. The intimacy that makes Booker’s music more than virtuosity comes from the pain in his voice, the sense that something brilliant and catastrophic is unfolding on the piano bench. “Bayou Maharajah” conveys that experience.
Second, the use of stock footage to illuminate the nuances and spirituality of Booker’s music is superb. Street scenes, waves in the Gulf and peeling storefronts accompany performances of “I’m True,” “So Swell When You’re Well,” and other favorites with uncanny sympathy. Too often in documentaries about New Orleans, directors paste in the most familiar images (streetcars, Mardi Gras, Jackson Square) and assume these totems convey appropriate hints of celebration or mourning, our cultural parentheses. In Bayou Maharajah, the city is context and puppet for the music, at turns buoyant and claustrophobic. What Keber does is neither overgeneralization nor rigid specificity–concert film after concert film whenever we want to hear some Booker. Instead, she digs deeper to set a visual pace that matches her subject’s sound. As the end approaches, we get a time-lapse portrayal of the Ninth Ward bar Vaughan’s opening and closing, a whole night atop one Booker song. The laborious waking, rushed vibrancy and sudden emptiness–that’s an effective parallel for the man’s art.
Ribald and entertaining as he remains, Booker’s is not a happy story. “Bayou Maharajah” does him justice in its honest storytelling, its explanation of his musical importance, and the care it shows for the people he left behind. Like Lafcadio Hearn, Booker is essential to anyone who appreciates the disfigured beauty of New Orleans. Unafraid to plumb the depths, wild in his successes, unmatched as a musician, a crier of the city’s underworld, Booker looks back from the screen with one eye and defies a simple portrait. One wishes he could hear the applause.
Reviewed by Brian Boyles. The People Say Project.
“…the film is almost an act of necromancy, calling forth the spirit of its subject
not just in words and images, but in its very structure”
ALEX JENNINGS, OFFBEAT
“highly fascinating on a universal scale, whether you’re a musician or not...
incredibly well-researched, cheeky and completely addictive viewing”
KAI HOFFMAN, LONDONJAZZ
“The result is not only a uniquely creative music documentary,
but also the best film about New Orleans in years"
KEN KORMAN, GAMBIT
“...Keber’s film is one of most culturally important documentaries
made in recent years.”
CAITLIN LOVE, OXFORD AMERICAN
“…ecstatic, sorrowful, beautiful, pained, full of anger, joy and something otherworldly”
MATTHEW ODAM, AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
SONGWRITER / PRODUCER
THE NIGHT TRIPPER
Harry Connick Jr.
PIANIST / ACTOR
SOUL QUEEN OF NOLA
ACTOR / MUSICIAN
PRODUCER / DIRECTOR
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
LOCATION SOUND RECORDING