LILY KEBER, DIRECTOR OF BAYOU MAHARAJAH: THE TRAGIC GENIUS OF JAMES BOOKER, HAS DONE WHAT SHE SET OUT TO DO. That wasn’t just to complete her first feature film or justify the time of celebrities who sat down and shared their stories of the New Orleans piano impresario without knowing whether the footage would make it out into the world. She set out to begin the resurrection of James Booker and his music, starting in his own hometown. After three years of work and six months of festival appearances, Keber is ready to take her hand away. Not casually, not callously, but to see if Booker can stand again in the national consciousness on his own.
For Keber, personally, it’s been a rewarding journey to the closing night of the New Orleans Film Fest from the point of inspiration: the jukebox at Vaughan’s Lounge in the Bywater neighborhood. She’s grateful, she’s confident, and she’s made a magical film. But soon, she told me, “It is very possible that I will be working at Vaughan’s again, come full circle, and listening to the same jukebox, but this time with the film.”
The resurrection ritual began with the search for footage. Bayou Maharajah is assembled, proudly, from a collection of photographs, audio tapes, concert footage, and home movie reels that capture day-to-day life in New Orleans. Keber said that her team “edited from scraps.” While the footage has been woven to seamless perfection by Tim Watson and Aimee Toledano, Keber is really the lone staffer in charge of promoting and marketing the film.
“For me, right now, there’s this impending sense of the end,” she told me. “To know that I can’t do this much longer, to know that I have to stop soon and get a real job.” She is looking to separate her life from Booker’s. She’ll never stop loving his music, but she is not interested in being his custodian or ambassador forever.
With Keber’s help, Booker has finally played the type of venues he always aspired to, like the Lincoln Center in New York. He’s been rediscovered and re-covered, his quotes cut and pasted. He’s been distilled to a tagline. While not officially used by Keber, Dr. John’s ultimately quotable quip that Booker was "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced” preceded the film everywhere in reviews and promotional tweets. While he fit those demographics, Keber told me, “I don’t think that’s why we’re talking about him today. These are elements of his story, but they’re not the story.”
The story is that of a man whose talents were incongruous but inseparable with being respected. He was a man obsessed with his own success, judging himself against the perceived success of others. He craved the attention of the multitude while wanting to be invisible to government agencies, the victim of a fractured worldview that was incompatible with mainstream success or long-term health. He had a one-of-a-kind musical mind, but he used drugs and alcohol to help tolerate the disturbances that came with it.
Above all things, he was magnetic, expressive, and wild, and for three years Keber has been watching Booker’s left hand trying to keep up.
The film is a testament to her patience. The next step is the soundtrack. Keber hopes to unite Booker’s disparate output into a unified album. “I see the soundtrack as a way to have a Booker 101, or one thing that can show his whole career, because that doesn’t exist,” she said. “Everything from ‘Hambone’ and ‘Gonzo’ all the way up to the Maple Leaf [where Booker played his final regular gigs]. I think that that’s the only way to really appreciate Booker’s abilities: not to hear one great album but to show everything that he can do.”
While the soundtrack is in the works, the film has been influential in at least one release: Rounder Records’ reissue of Classified with additional tracks. Keber heard anecdotal stories about the session that led the label’s VP Scott Billington to go back to the master tapes and reconsider a lot of unreleased tracks.
Keber didn’t set out to create more fodder for collectors, though. When I spoke to her for an article early this year before her film was finished, she spoke of converting the unconverted, bringing him to the consciousness of people who’d never come into contact with his music. That goal has been realized, though not to its ultimate potential. She also spoke of the remaining family members who--to that point--had remained unapproachable.
Nine months later, though, the completed film has brought awareness to Booker’s legacy and bridged the gap slightly. Booker’s remaining family--nieces and nephews--will attend the homecoming screening. They’ll have the chance to see their “crazy” uncle’s story told by a third party and his weaknesses tempered by the larger scope of his performances and humor.
Still, Booker’s resurrection is incomplete.
In a world of talented creatives searching for stories to tell, overlooked and obscure musicians with ready-made fan bases and at least a shoebox worth of photographs make easy targets for projects. The old stars battle uphill against contemporary acts. More and more, attention is being paid both to acts who have become obscure and those who always deserved to be obscure.
The music documentary has traditionally centered on concert footage and behind-the-scenes interviews or straight biography. In some, normal men are made into myths, and in others myths are made mortal. With Bayou Maharajah, the myth is maintained by its own examination. We need more films like Keber’s to keep us honest about what we do and do not know. We need more directors like Keber, willing to live, fight, and bond with their subjects instead of turning them into calling cards.
We need more directors like Keber who almost refuse to self-promote during interviews because WWOZ starts playing one of their favorite songs.
At the same time, she said, “I have to be able to put the Booker film to bed, because I have to be able to do something else with my life, but it’s hard. There’s always the fear that if I’m not doing it, then no one’s doing it. So trying to figure out how to have the film be its own self-sustaining identity so I can pay off my credit bill and do new work.”
Hopefully that new work will come sooner rather than later. Keber set out to make a film that followed the fluid but unpredictable nature of one of Booker’s gigs--he could transition from bebop to Chopin, improvising at an instantaneous rate--and the film’s final third, like a last set, contains extended sequences of Booker playing.
“I know the film is not going to appeal to everyone because you do have to be willing to sit down and go there emotionally with it. What I like about it is that it unfolds. And if you sit there with it and sit there with Booker on his own terms, I think it will give a lot back to you.”
Still, it is an authentic expression of a part New Orleans culture past and present, and there is no doubt that everyone in attendance at the premiere will give it a standing ovation when the credits roll.
Despite all the frustration with distributors, despite being told her film can’t sell because it’s about an unknown musician from a second-rate city, despite the flak she has taken for taking the film out on tour before ever showing it at home, Keber is honored to have her local premiere be part of the New Orleans Film Fest. “For me that’s like the unveiling, like a debutante coming out. Showing the film to the people who will really know if I did a good job or not.”