“Bayou Maharajah” explores the mysteries of James Booker and the allure of New Orleans – a review

Near the beginning of Lily Keber’s documentary Bayou Maharajah, which explores the life and times of famed pianist and composer James Booker, various interviewees share the stories they were told about how Booker lost his eye.

Was Ringo Starr to blame? Jackie Kennedy? A fight in prison? An underworld strongman with a pair of pliers?

Booker played with many stellar musicians throughout his brief career and was a key influence on greats like Harry Connick, Jr., and Dr. John, but no one knows or remembers or is willing to say how he lost his left eye?

There are many mysteries that remain about Booker’s life, but we do know that Booker’s influence on other musicians can’t be overstated. It’s simply riveting to see Connick demonstrate his teacher’s piano techniques, and it’s both funny and sad to hear Connick recall latenight calls from a distressed Booker seeking his help. “James, I’m 12,” Connick remembers himself saying, as he kept a tape recorder glued to the phone because he instinctively knew that those calls were momentous in some way.

A low-key Dr. John discusses and demonstrates how Booker taught him how to play the organ.

But the most interesting interviewees are the musicians who played with Booker in the clubs and friends who tried to support Booker even when he seemed bent on propelling himself into the abyss. They describe an immensely talented musician who could at times be a disciplined role player but who could at any moment succumb to his addictions, including heroin.

Keber could have delved more deeply into some of the sordid details of Booker’s life, but Bayou Maharajah maintains a sort of respectful distance. We hear a couple of interviewees talk about Booker hitting on men, but we never know with whom he had sex or relationships (if any). We never hear from his dealers or from those who shot up with him.

Or maybe we do hear from some of those folks, but that’s not what they talk about on screen.

Instead of chronicling such details, Bayou Maharajah immerses viewers in the world of New Orleans in the middle decades of the 20th century and in the many moods of Booker’s music.

I knew little about James Booker before interviewing Keber in advance of last week’s screening here in Savannah, and I certainly wasn’t prepared the richness of his vocals. Touring Europe in the 1970s, Booker played to packed halls with a combination of grace, confidence, and virtuosity that he often didn’t achieve in the U.S., where his talent was never fully appreciated.

Keber lets a few stellar clips play to the end to the end of the song. Many filmmakers would have only included snippets of those taped performances, but Keber gets out of the way of the music. It’s a bold choice that helps give Bayou Maharajah a sense of wholeness despite the many unknowns.

Booker’s career took him around the country and around the world, but toward the end of his life he wouldn’t leave New Orleans. Maybe the city was his only great love, or maybe his paranoia had just grown too powerful.

Bayou Maharajah doesn’t try to solve that riddle either, but the film gives us beautiful and suggestive glimpses of Booker’s New Orleans.