Of all the world-class musicians to come out of New Orleans over the last 100 years or so, James Carroll Booker III may be the one who remains most shrouded in mystery. His musical genius is the stuff of local legend, and his flamboyant personality still makes those who knew Booker light up with the chance to tell an outrageous yet (potentially) true story about him. Probably bipolar, possibly schizophrenic, he was a handful even for those who loved him unconditionally. Booker was a difficult character to pin down when he was alive, often disappearing for weeks without warning or explanation. His best records have been out of print for years. How can we finally get a handle on a mythical figure like this 30 years after his untimely death at the age of 43?
New Orleans filmmaker Lily Keber's documentary Bayou Maharajah retrieves Booker from relative obscurity by placing his life and work squarely in the context of the only city capable of producing him. Keber located reams of previously unknown performance and interview footage, audio clips, photographs and other materials, and she found no shortage of friends and colleagues eager to shed light on the musician. But the film doesn't aim to uncover every possible factual detail, and it won't sensationalize a figure famously described by longtime collaborator Dr. John as "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." Like its subject, Bayou Maharajah follows its own muse, loosely tracing the arc of Booker's life story but quickly disappearing down whatever rabbit hole it deems appropriate. The result is not only a uniquely creative music documentary, but also the best film about New Orleans in years.
Booker made his first record ("Doin' the Hambone") at age 14, and the list of all-time greats Booker accompanied on tour in the 1950s and '60s includes Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and many others. But the film necessarily focuses on the 1970s, when Booker came into his own as an artist and eventually found a wildly receptive audience in Europe. Defying music-doc convention, the film leaves room for Booker's music to breathe. A full five-minute clip of his version of New Orleans R&B classic "True" from the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival captures a moment of surprisingly delicate artistry. By contrast, a sequence in which famous friends share a range of unlikely stories about how Booker lost an eye is nothing short of hilarious. Illuminating Booker's technique on the piano is his former pre-teen student, Harry Connick Jr., who elegantly demonstrates what set Booker apart as a musician. "It's insanity," Connick concludes, still in awe of his mentor's magic.
Balancing the music and the tall tales is a treasure trove of rare archival footage that vividly depicts life in New Orleans in days gone by. Integrated with the rest of the film, this material helps generate a timeless quality that bridges eras and reminds us who we are and what still makes this city great. "Why leave New Orleans?" Booker asks rhetorically near the end of Bayou Maharajah. Keber's film finds its true voice by making his story our own. The documentary is the closing film in the New Orleans Film Festival. — KEN KORMAN