Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker

James Booker once claimed that Ringo Starr pulled his eye out during a fight, hence the star motif on his eye-patch. Dr John famously described Booker as “the best black, one-eyed junkie piano player genius New Orleans has ever produced.” James Booker was not your average musician and Bayou Maharajah, which explores his entertaining but troubled life, is not your average documentary. I spoke to director and New Orleans resident Lily Keber on what motivated her to create one of this year’s most original docs.

You first heard about James Booker whilst working behind a bar in New Orleans, is that right?

I was working at Vaughan’s Lounge, and he was always being played on the jukebox. It was totally bizarre music, I had no idea what I was hearing, and then people would tell these outrageous stories. Booker is so well known and beloved in New Orleans everyone of a certain age has a story about seeing him. He’s also a guy you don’t forget easily; his legacy is still very present here.

Because I was exposed to Booker through these stories, through people recounting their memories, that’s how I wanted to structure the film. I didn’t want it to be a bunch of experts sitting around telling you facts, because Booker’s history is not necessarily one of solid facts, it’s one of local mythology so I intentionally wanted to give the sense of sewing together a rich tapestry of tales.

But of all the musical legends that are born out of New Orleans why James Booker?

That’s the story that grabbed me. Looking back on it now his history seemed so mysterious compared to other musicians. At that time, around 2009 I guess, when I first started looking into his life, if you did a Google search just nothing came up.

He was obviously a huge influence on New Orleans music yet at the same time seemed so overlooked. He was so legendary amongst the people I knew but just absent from everywhere else. There was no way to easily know more. It was like I had to make this journey of discovery, and at the time I started this project it seemed like Booker and the huge impact he had on music was in danger of being forgotten.

How long did it take to make the film?

It took over three years. The first interview was in January 2010 and then we showed it at SXSW March 2013. The first step was just talking to people. I identified a few individuals who I thought would be ideal first candidates. I did six interviews over the course of three days and then I edited those together into a trailer for the film.

Not a single person in New Orleans ever asked me where I went to film school, or if I’d done this before, or if I knew what I was doing. The fact that I worked in Vaughn’s as a bar tender was really much more of an intrinsic factor in persuading people to be part of the film than whether I had any previous experience directing a documentary.
The first stories you always hear always involve Booker throwing up on stage, Booker shooting up, Booker sitting at the piano with a joint between every black key, that kind of stuff. I think a lot of People were kind of concerned whether I was going to focus mainly on that side of his personality or if I was going to make a film about music. The trailer demonstrated that what I was trying to do was show that he was this over looked musical genius and not just a scandalous junkie, which really helped get people on board.

What was the greatest obstacle?

The archive footage was a beast. I always thought the idea of finding footage of Booker would be the hardest part but in the end finding footage of New Orleans in the seventies was the hardest thing. It just doesn’t exist.

What were your main objectives in regards to what you hoped to capture?

In many ways Booker is so emblematic of New Orleans on so many levels that it helped me see this city in a whole different way and raised some very intrinsic questions about the creative process. Of course my main objective was to bring Booker to a new audience and a younger generation.

Another objective was to make an honest portrayal of New Orleans. Everyone that worked on the film is local and really wanted to make a film that was actually from New Orleans. We wanted to avoid all the clichés and make something that goes a little deeper in capturing the character of the city and its soul, and make the kind of New Orleans film that I’ve always wanted to see.

New Orleans is the supporting character of the film. You can’t tell the story of James Booker without telling a story about New Orleans. I don’t think he could have come from any other place.

The film certainly feels a lot more unique and cinematic than most standard music profiles.

I think a lot of that derives from Booker himself because he’s such a complicated character, there’s so much that you need to know in order to get to the point where you can listen to the music. There’s so much information that needs to be imparted that isn’t straightforward because he still remains a mystery. So in order to figure out how to tell the story of an enigma we had to do a lot of somersaults.

So we decided to structure the film in the spirit of one of his live sets. He could sit down and medley from song to song according to what I refer to as Booker Logic. So that’s really more how we tried to make the film, to structure according to theme rather than chronology or fact.

We just wanted to make the best film we could and to eschew a lot of the stereotypes associated with our city. We wanted to tell a good story and one that was up to his standards. He really does inspire you to reach higher levels.

The reason I let a lot of the concert sequences play out is because that is the time when Booker is being his most truthful and that is the only time Booker is really in control of his element. That’s why we’re here talking about him today, not because of all the crazy stuff he did but because of his mastery of music. I want the audience to be present with that moment and to understand what he is saying.

What do you think he represents in regards to music and to New Orleans?

Reggie Scanlan said Booker taught him the nonsense of genre. Music is just music and these labels that we put on it are largely there so that it can be sold. It doesn’t reflect on the music itself. As long as we think about music in those terms we’re really limiting its impact and limiting ourselves. One thing that Booker really excelled at was making a mockery of the convention of genre, and what was expected of an instrument too. But I think in typical Booker form it also limited him.

He doesn’t quite fit anywhere and that’s the beautiful part of him and that’s also one of the things that held him back. The fact that no one today can actually play his music because it’s so complicated speaks wonders of what he achieved as a musician.

As far as New Orleans is concerned he represents the complexity of the city. At once the vibrant, creative and in the moment intenseness of the city, while at the same time he represents the part that’s unable to escape itself. The side of the city that loves life so much that it can’t preserve it. It’s beautiful and it’s sad at the same time. But that is New Orleans.

There’s an incredibly haunting black & white time lapsed sequence towards the end of the film. Can you elaborate on its significance?

Well most of that was shot at Vaughan’s. Most of what’s seen in the film is pretty much archival but that was shot this spring on 16mm. Everything that you need to know about James Booker is in that piece of music that you hear, he’s playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C and then it medleys into Taste Of Honey by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, a total sixties pop song.

The music is very haunting and very strange and it’s the closest I could get to being inside James Booker’s head. At that point in the film we wanted to represent one night in James Booker’s life, one night at the bars in New Orleans, an instance in which you see how he’s making those connections.

For me his version of that music is the deepest scariest music I’ve ever heard. And then to go into Taste of Honey, it’s like breaking through the cloud into light and I’ve never heard music that makes me feel that way before. To see what a deep impression he had on other people was always fascinating for me and it’s something that will stay with me forever.