“Bayou Maharajah” examines the life and fraility of pianist James Booker

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New Orleans-based piano genius, James Booker is the subject of a documentary streaming on Netflix. “Bayou Maharajah” attempts to dissect the myths that surrounded the late musician. In the process, the musician’s piano-prodigy childhood and paranoid addict adulthood are unpacked through interviews with people who knew Booker, and the performer’s diaries.

An introduction to James Booker

There are no easy roads to James Carroll Booker III. He was the gay son of a minister, whose mother sang in church. Booker’s sister, too, was a tremendous musician. Booker’s relationship to his mother and sister are important–in a short span of time, both women died. These events are viewed by some in the film as reasons why Booker turned to drugs.

Another reason the film offers for the addiction is when Booker was hit by a car at age nine. He was dragged by the car, and was given morphine in the hospital. At that point, Booker’s childhood greatness through regional fame was still to come.

“Bayou Maharajah”: The set-up

The film is replete with concert footage, mostly in Europe. For some critics, Booker received the attention and acclaim there that he couldn’t get in the US for some reason. Those reasons range from racism to Booker’s own difficult personality made worse by his drug addiction.

The film opens with Booker playing a concert in Norway. Through his stage banter, viewers get a sense of Booker’s personality. But the carefree persona has a darker side, and that is revealed first in interviews with people who knew Booker, and then in archival footage that shows Booker becoming belligerent with little provocation.

The set-up of the documentary is fairly standard. The work stands out because of its subject. Even if Booker isn’t a household name, the people that he has performed with, are. The film seems to work to answer the question, “Why wasn’t he more famous?”

The non-linear approach to the documentary engages viewers. Cartoonish re-creation of concert posters and the vehicle injury that Booker sustained as a child, break up the visuals of interviews with critics and musicians. Further, and more to the point of the documentary, Booker’s childhood is discussed after viewers learn of Booker’s adult struggles.

One of the points of (dark) humor in the documentary is the discussion of how Booker lost his eye. The theories range from infection to a fight with Ringo Starr, to a drug dealer extracting the eye for a debt. Each participant who offered a theory was confident in his or her explanation.

Booker became the “Piano Prince of New Orleans” after his version of “Hambone” was played on the radio, and became a regional hit. Booker was 14 years old. Having played in public since he was 12, the musician petitioned for emancipation at age 16 so that he could play in adult clubs, such as the Dew Drop Inn. He was successful, and the rest was jazz history.

James Booker: No easy answers

Without voiceovers, or too much in the way of editorializing, the filmmaker allows viewers to come to their own conclusions. For all the things he talked about, Booker was less than forthcoming about certain facets of his life.

The documentary, too, seems elliptical when viewers want more answers. This is especially true at the end, when Booker is rushed to the hospital and dies. No cause of death is given, but the musician’s relative youth (43 years) is lamented. Musicians serve as pallbearers, and they populate his funeral.

Even if viewers have never heard of Booker, this documentary could serve as an introduction to his style, which was completely remarkable. Notables such as Harry Connick, Jr., (whose father worked with Booker) and Dr. John, dissect Booker’s style, and attempt to show viewers what Booker did.

The performer layered New Orleans’ style piano riffs atop Chopin motifs, and added other nuances to create his own style. That kind of originality will be missed, and that is the tragedy of both Booker’s life, and this documentary.

 

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