Bayou Maharajah (US 2013)

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Music documentaries appear in UK cinemas fairly regularly. Tonight I could choose between two and ironically the director of the one I didn’t choose was thanked in the credits of the one I did. However, I later discovered that Bayou Maharajah was actually on the festival circuit in 2013 and has had to wait three years for a release in the UK. It was worth the wait and it will play at various venues across the UK in the next month. See dates and venues on the Music Film Network website.

James Carroll Booker (1939-1983) was a New Orleans piano player who was considered a genius by the major musicians of the New Orleans scene – the ones featured in the film include Dr John, Irma Thomas, Neville Neville and the late Allen Toussaint. If you own any records produced in New Orleans between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, you will be able to hear James Booker backing the star name. Like many geniuses before him – and sadly many in the future perhaps – James Booker’s talent was difficult to corral and confine in a recording studio. His difficult early life left him with a propensity to develop a drug and alcohol addiction. He also had poor mental health, at some point lost an eye (various stories are recounted as to how this might have happened) and he was openly gay in the New Orleans bar scene of the period. But he could play piano (and alto and tenor sax) like an angel.

Bayou Maharajah is a conventional documentary by an inexperienced filmmaker. Lily Keber was working in a bar in New Orleans in 2006 when she first heard James Booker tracks on the jukebox and drinkers talking about Booker’s exploits. By 2010 she had raised $10, 000 on Kickstarter and started to collect material. Her documentary succeeds because, apart from having the enormous talent of James Booker at its core, the film does simple things very well. Keber has found Booker’s friends, admirers and colleagues and gathered interesting anecdotes. The talking heads are presented without gimmicks and the bulk of them are very engaging. Keber has also found archive recordings of Booker’s playing, sometimes on very degraded video material – and she hasn’t messed with the aspect ratios, hoorah! She’s also found high quality stills and she presents a mini master-class by Harry Connick Jr. (who became Booker’s eager pupil aged 12). Connick demonstrates the incredible keyboard techniques that underpinned Booker’s playing. As a non-pianist, I was very impressed. I suspect piano players will be suitably wowed.

It’s important in films like these to present at least one or two complete performances. That’s certainly the case here. Like too many other African-Americans of his generation, James Booker had to leave North America to find appreciative bookers and audiences in Europe. It’s interesting to see him appearing as a solo act in France and Germany. He appreciated the respect he was given in Europe but it didn’t encourage record companies in the US and he suffered badly from very low earnings for his session work on various recordings. Part of the problem was that Booker didn’t have a manager – no-one could manage him says one interviewee.

There is one almost avant-garde use of what I took to be ‘found footage’. A black and white film of one night at a New Orleans bar is speeded up to last only a few minutes as almost subliminal figures suddenly flash on screen. At the time I think I puzzled over what to make of this but on reflection it seems like an effective means of representing James Booker’s life in New Orleans. He was only properly appreciated by a few but his talent was such that his presence remains embedded in New Orleans music culture.

I never did find out why the film has the title ‘Bayou Maharajah’ but it fits somehow. James Booker could play everything from Chopin to jazz. Most of all though for me he captured that essential New Orleans sound and now I want someone to make a film explaining why New Orleans piano-playing is so distinctive – in both cultural and musical terms.

Here is the trailer plus a clip showing one of the archive performances. I hope these will convince you to look up this film:

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