2013, Directed by Lily Keber, 98 minutes
“Three and a half minutes into his rendition of the live recording of his microcosmically titled composition, Life, James Booker throws an astonishing run across the piano keys that tells us, in a handful of musical measures, how unfathomable and incalculable his talent was. He knows it, too, letting out the smallest, self-satisfied utterance—”Hah”—at the solo’s end. Do not, he seems to be warning his audience, try that if you are not Booker. And no one else ever or hence will be Booker.
Lily Keber’s insightful documentary into the life of this great New Orleans pianist and one of the world’s finest musicians is in real respects a similar high-wire act. It celebrates the astonishing genius and virtuosity of the man, but also reflects on a short life of pain, isolation and disconnection that was also Booker’s to endure. Nothing is overstated or made lurid here, nor is this beautiful filmic reflection of a deeply talented and troubled man a romanticized account.
Instead, to the extent possible with such an enigmatic artist, the great James Booker is instead found, studied and deeply respected in a careful, wonderful film.”
— David Simon
Bayou Maharajah explores the life and music of New Orleans piano legend James Booker. Featuring interviews with Harry Connick Jr., Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and Hugh Laurie, as well as never-before seen live performances, archival photographs and original stories, the film brings to life the unforgettable story of an American genius.
A brilliant pianist, his eccentricities and showmanship belied a life of struggle, prejudice, and isolation. A wild genius with a style that combined elements of rhythm-and-blues, jazz, ragtime and classical music, he gained the nicknames “Piano Prince of New Orleans”, “Black Liberace” and “Bayou Maharajah”. Illustrated with never-before-seen concert footage, rare personal photos and exclusive interviews, the film paints a portrait of this overlooked genius.