There is no doubt that James Booker lives on in his dazzling music — and now also through a candid and artful documentary. Bayou Maharajah is dedicated to the legendary New Orleans pianist, a genius musician and tormented soul who hypnotised crowds from the 1950s to the 1980s, and to whom Lily Kleber devotes a 98-minute homage: the “Prince of Piano”.
Bayou Maharajah follows Booker’s life chronologically, opening each chapter with colourful inserts of posters, painting a 360-degree picture of the musician, from his early success, the staggeringly young age at which he started touring for Little Richard, his career as an iconic American star (alongside The Coasters, Dizzy Gillespie and like) to his last gig.
Gay, one-eyed, junkie, absolutely out of control — Booker has every feature to make a charming and dangerous main character. Kleber presents a collection of extremely rare footage from concerts and interviews with the iconic pianist, while interviewing great names of the US music scene, colleagues and often also friends of the eccentric performer, creating an intimate commentary on his life from within his own circle.
Key figures of jazz and R’n’B, like John Parsons, Ron Cuccia, Allen Toussaint, Charles Neville and many more (including a few international guests jumping into the story from France, Russia, and wherever Booker left his mark), confide anecdotes of his rambunctious lifestyle, a rollercoaster of alcohol and drug problems, and extraordinary concerts that shall remain in the annals of rhythm’n’blues. Several grainy photographs add vibrant texture to the stolen moment – a great job of archival footage montage.
With his unforgettable and unmistakable star-adorned pirate patch (the origin of which is explained in at least ten wild stories by different interviewees), the documentary gives off exactly the right vibe: cheeky, provocative, one might simply say “Booker-esque”. For lovers of jazz and rhythm’n’blues, or really for lovers of music in general, this is a film to savour in all its melodies and treasures. Somehow Lily Kleber manages to piece together a tapestry of sounds and glimpses into the past that gives an all-round picture of a musician whose music was as hard to grasp as it was impossible to ignore. Just as saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler mentions at the closing of this documentary, “trying to record Booker was like trying to catch the wind” — Kleber gets very close to that. Take a swig of rhythm.
Bayou Maharajah is released in selected cinemas on 8th July 2016.
Watch the trailer for Bayou Maharajah here: