A striking presence, wearing an eye-patch, outlandish attire and boasting a personality that could win over any crowd, it was the talent in James Booker‘s fingers that left audiences talking once he was finished on stage. A New Orleans institution, a prized musician among musicians, an eccentric troublemaker, a tortured genius and a soul who could never quite keep it together long enough to sustain a concrete career, Lily Keber‘s documentary “Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius Of James Booker” is an earnest attempt to offer contemporary audiences an appreciation and knowledge of who this person was. But despite the title of the doc, which conjures up a madcap, heartbreaking tale, the film is a mostly workmanlike biopic that unfortunately can never match the energy of the subject it’s trying to capture.
And that’s a shame because the facts of the life of James Booker are astounding. While it may be something more familiar these days, back then it was still a bit surprising for a teenager to emancipate themselves from their parents, but that’s just what Booker did at the age of 16—by which time he had already cut a couple of popular novelty records—hitting the road to tour and he never looked back. Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Huey Piano Smith, Little Tex and many, many more counted Booker as a member of their bands, and his prodigious skill wasn’t just present on the piano, he could also play both the alto and tenor saxophone. But the 88s were where he felt most at home, and the numerous clips of music and live concert footage in the film certainly allows Booker to prove, all on his own, just how captivating a performer he could be.
But if you’re not a music head, and don’t know your ragtime from blues, or jazz from soul, it’s (surprisingly) Harry Connick Jr. who gives a simple demonstration of why Booker was so admired. Connick, who as a young boy knew Booker because his father was his legal counsel from time to time, gives a pretty illustrative lesson on how Booker took his classical training and transposed it on top of rhythm ‘n blues music to create something wholly his own. And again, even if your musical knowledge is zilch, Connick’s impressive explanation leaves little doubt Booker was operating an another level. And testimony from the various players who recorded, played and managed Booker more than adequately back this up. So where does the documentary fall down?
It simply doesn’t go deep enough. For a man who described himself as the “Black Liberace,” Booker’s sexuality is merely mentioned in passing. And more importantly, it’s suggested that his mental problems began to take root following the deaths of his sister and mother, and yet, the filmmakers rarely venture into Booker’s personal background with any depth or detail, to try and at least offer some framework for the man who was clearly haunted by some kind of demons. Instead, Keber puts the focus on the music—which is admirable—but still leaves much unexplored. In particular, we are left with little context of the changing tastes and musical sphere that may or may not have played a part in Booker achieving greater fame. While the film treats Booker’s departure to Europe in the ’70s as an indication of American audiences refusing to appreciate their homegrown musical culture (underscored by a two second cameo from Hugh Laurie, who says basically the same thing), it obscures the fact that many jazz and blues artists ventured abroad during this era. It was part of a greater shift in the musical climate, but there’s little sense of where Booker himself placed alongside his peers, or even what critical response (if any) at the time was.
But, more often than not, ‘Bayou Maharajah’ lets the music do a lot of talking, and Keber is generous with the extended musical clips which truly do express what an infectious, inventive and at times, moving performer Booker was. But these sequences also sometimes feel like padding on a movie, that even at a short 90 minutes, begins to drag. And this is unforgivable when so many avenues—including Booker’s detour into taking a straight job at City Hall (!)—are mere roadsigns on what is ultimately a fairly perfunctory journey. When Booker’s far too early death arrives, and we’re treated to the local cable news coverage of his passing, one wishes that the documentary felt like more than a feature length version of that broadcast. [C+]