Review: ‘Bajou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker

Written & Directed by Lily Keber

Playing as part of Film Society of Lincoln Center
‘s SOUND + VISION Series on Sunday, July 28 @ 8:15pm (New York Premiere) and Monday, July 29 @ 3:45 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film CenterTICKETS

Lily Keber’sBayou Maharajah” is an at-times engrossing, always affectionate documentary portrait of one-eyed New Orleans jazz musician James Booker, who was active from the 1950s until his death in 1983, at the age of 43. Through interviews with musicians ranging from Harry Connick, Jr. to Irma Thomas, the film does an excellent job of conveying Booker’s monumental talent. But “Bayou Maharajah” fails to get at Booker on a personal level.

Active mostly in New Orleans, Booker was recognized as a virtuoso. But factors ranging from reluctance to play outside of New Orleans, to his alienation of peers through drug addiction and paranoia, limited his broader public recognition.

The interview subjects express heartfelt admiration for Booker’s output, and often describe in fascinating detail just what made him great. In one sequence, Booker’s friend and protégé Harry Connick, Jr. sits at a piano and demonstrates Booker’s playing techniques, the camera focused on his fingers. “Bayou Maharajah” is a documentary about music as well as a man, and usually focuses on the former. And as an exploration of Booker’s music, the film often excels.

But “Bayou Maharajah’s” biographical elements are wanting. Ironically, one of the film’s best sequences demonstrates why. In a rapid-fire series of interview clips, we learn of the many different tales of how Booker lost his eye. Stories range from glaucoma to being tortured by drug dealers, but nobody really knows. It makes for a hilarious illustration of the layers of myth surrounding Booker. But it also shows that even those closest to him did not fully know him. The film delves into Booker’s talent, his career, his flaws, but does not convey what made him tick. Much of Booker’s personal life remains unexplored – his romances, for instance. (Booker was gay, a fact barely touched on). The film does not get at the sources of his motivations, or of his demons.

The archival shots of Booker – sometimes playing music, sometimes just talking – make for some of the film’s most interesting footage. Sometimes rambling, sometimes eloquent, always magnetic, Booker himself is a riveting figure. At its best, the film succeeds in evoking an engaging personality, if not a fleshed-out person. And “Bayou Maharajah” always thrills when it just shows Booker wailing on a piano. Thankfully, it does that quite a bit.

– David Teich

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