Bayou Maharajah review – rich tribute to James Booker

The New Orleans jazz-blues wildman is brought to life in a documentary that celebrates his musicianship as well as the colourful tales

The life and times of the New Orleans jazz/blues pianist and singer James Booker are conjured up in this richly enjoyable documentary tribute. It takes account of his troubled psyche and covers plenty of the wild-man anecdotes, but pays close attention to the musicianship. Booker was a self-taught virtuoso who studied Grieg, Chopin and Rachmaninov as well as Liberace, but had a natural understanding of the piano that went beyond formal study. Playing came as easily as talking – which itself came very easily: Booker’s onstage loquacity was part of his appeal.

His early single Gonzo was said to have inspired Hunter S Thompson to invent “gonzo” journalism, and Booker was a massive drinker, drug-abuser and hell-raiser – a way of life that brought grimly predictable results. Some of the film’s most touching contributions are from Harry Connick Jr, who very ably analyses Booker’s musical style and reveals that Booker was his mentor, favourite honorary uncle and friend. It was a sadness in Booker’s life that, in finding the European acclaim that was the destiny of so many American jazz greats, he was exiled from his native land, unable to make a living in the US, to which he felt compelled to return. It was a melancholy end to a heroic career.

Watch the trailer for Bayou Maharajah


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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