Interview with Director Lily Keber

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Bayou Maharajah explores the life and music of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, the man Dr. John described as "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." A brilliant pianist, his eccentricities and showmanship belied a life of struggle, prejudice, and isolation. Illustrated with never-before-seen concert footage, rare personal photos and exclusive interviews, the film paints a portrait of this overlooked genius.
Photo Credit: Lily Keber
July 24th, 2013

 New Orleans has always been famous for there unique style of music and culture. Thanks to documentary filmmaker Lily Keber, the life and music of one of the cities best musicians can be seen in her new film "Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker." Movie Room Reviews sat down with Lily and discussed her new film, James Booker’s music, and the extraordinary city of New Orleans.

Nick Leyland from Movie Room Reviews:  Hi Lily.

Lily Keber:  Hey, Nick, how are you doing?

MRR:  Good. How's your day going?

Lily:  It's going well. I'm back in New Orleans. I've been sitting in front of my inbox all morning. It's another one of those days where I'm just going to be stuck in my inbox all day.

MRR:  At least you can get some sweet New Orleans food.

Lily:  Oh yeah, totally. That's never a problem. The problem is not getting too much sweet New Orleans food.

MRR:  [laughs] What's the best food to have down there? Is it barbeque or is it the seafood?

Lily:  What's the best food down here? Definitely not the barbeque. Actually, there's only one place that I'll eat barbeque. Also, I'm from North Carolina, so you're asking a total barbeque snob. I would say with New Orleans the best route to go is the creole food. You have to have good rice and beans. You've got to try the jambalaya, the étouffée. Then the seafood's great. A good gumbo, there's nothing better in the whole world. The problem is -- and I guess that this is really true anywhere in the world -- the best food is the stuff that people make.

When I first moved here, the best food that I would eat was the stuff that was sitting out for free in the bars, because they know that if they feed you, you'll stick around and drink more. So the bars will all have someone in the back cooking.

MRR:  Really?

Lily:  Cajun stuff is incredible. Everyone fishes here. A couple local drunks will just go out crabbing and then come back. You'll be sitting at some complete dive bar and they come out with steamed crabs. You're like, really? This is free?

MRR:  [laughs] That's amazing.

Lily:  Yes, I will have another two dollar beer. It's incredible.

MRR:  I've never seen that before.

Lily:  Yeah, and then people wonder why I never left.

MRR:  Oh, so you live there now full time?

Lily:  I do live here full time, yeah. It's been nice with the film's screenings to get out a little, but it always feels great to come back home.

Nick:  What about North Carolina?

Lily:  This is it. I left North Carolina. I'm born and raised in the South, but for me New Orleans is the answer to the South. It's like, you can live here and get the food and the manners -- the ability to talk to your neighbors -- but then you don't get the close mindedness and the judgmental nature of the rest of the South. Anyway, that's a whole other thing. So, the film.

MRR:  Yeah, let's talk about your new film. It's "Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker." The film premiered at South by Southwest on March 14th. It explored the life and times of the New Orleans piano legend James Booker. Why don't you give our audience a rundown of this film, please?

Lily:  Well, James Booker, I would argue, is America's greatest piano player, certainly one of America's finest musicians. As Harry Connick says, there are only 88 keys on the piano, and people can play them all kinds of ways, but it's very rare that you find someone who develops an entirely new approach to the instrument, and Booker really did. He was a child prodigy and then took classical lessons as a kid, and then combined that with that specifically New Orleans "je ne sais quoi" progressive approach to music. Also combine with his encyclopedic knowledge of music. The sound that came out is a very sophisticated, nuanced approach to music.

I don't know, it also throws in all these references. After three years of listening to Booker, I still pick out new references in these songs that I never heard before or that I guess my ear was too slow to pick up.

But then, combined with that musical genius, Booker was also African-American in a time of Jim Crow segregation. He was a homosexual at a time that was still quite dangerous. He was either bipolar or schizophrenic, it's hard to tell. He had one eye. Oh, and a drug addict.

His daily reality was not an easy one. Sometimes I think of "Amadeus," that film about Mozart. Just the genius on one side and the complete inability to function socially on the other. That, I would say, is my intro to James Booker.

It's such a complicated story, even today it's hard to describe. The first question someone asked, "What kind of music does he play?" Even that is such a hard question to answer. It's not strictly jazz, it's not strictly blues, it's not strictly R&B. It's a combination and a synthesis of all those things.

MRR:  I can't even imagine asking him that question, because he'd probably go off on a tangent for 20 minutes about what style of music he played. [laughs] Let's start easy here. How did you choose the title of the film? I know he has an album of the same name, but how did you go about choosing the title?

Lily:  He calls himself the Bayou Maharajah. He's got this whole never-ending repertoire of bizarre nicknames he would give himself. The Black Liberace, the Ivory Emperor, the Orleans Earthquake. It goes on and on. But for me I think the Bayou Maharajah stuck out for one because it doesn't quite make sense in the same way that a lot about him was a little confusing and a little mysterious. It stuck out for me, and I certainly wasn't going to call the film "The Black Liberace," you know? Although he calls himself that a lot, let me say. The subtitle of it, I went back and forth on it a lot, but I felt like ultimately I needed to find a way to get James Booker's name in the title.

Again, I know that it's not an easy title to say or spell, and some people have a hard time with "Maharajah," but for me it does feel reflective of him, that you don't necessarily get him or his music on the first pass, and that's OK. Even after watching the film, there are still things that are mysterious and unknown, but that's really an aspect of Booker's character and of his story.

MRR:  Your documentary has opened me up personally to his wonderful music. I've heard of James Booker and I never really paid too much attention to him. I'd never really dove into his music or anything like that. Is that one of the biggest thrills for you, exposing all these people who may never have heard of him, or have heard of him but just have not payed much attention to his music?

Lily:  Oh, absolutely. That's really why I made the film. I really wanted to gear this film towards people who have never heard of him. Maybe because I was one of those. When I moved to New Orleans I had never even heard the name. I knew nothing about him. For one, people who already know about him, they're already converted. They already either love or hate him. I really wanted to make this film for people who don't know him, maybe don't know a lot about New Orleans, don't know a lot about piano or the New Orleans piano tradition. I really want it to be a film that anyone can walk into and pick up at the beginning.

Yeah, I love hearing those stories. At the screening at Outfest, I was really amazed, or maybe happily surprised, at how many people didn't know him before they walked into the screening.

MRR:  Right, and I think that's a really cool thing that you did, open so many people up to his great music.

Lily:  Cool, thank you.

MRR:  When you have a movie like this, how long did it take you to sort through all that footage? Was it hard to connect things? Did you just get random footage from a bunch of places to try to connect it all and have to cut things out? How long did that take you? Was that just crazy frustrating?

Lily:  Yes, it was crazy frustrating and it still is. It's funny, I'll still be talking to people and like, oh wait, is this in the film? And then tell them a story. They're like, no, that's not. I'm like, ah, damn. Too bad. From start to finish, from the time I shot the first interview until the premiere at "South by Southwest" was three years. The first year and a half of that was still meeting people, tracking people down, getting more footage, getting more interviews.

But yeah, it's not an easy story to tell at all. A lot of what we did in editing at the beginning was just mapping out every single thing about Booker and about his story and then trying to figure out how to tell that, because it's so complicated.

I have about 60 hours of interview footage and several more hours of concert footage. That was really the hard thing. There's so many fascinating, wonderful, over-the-top, completely engaging, crazy stories that didn't make the film. I sat down with a lot of piano players, like the section with Harry Connick where he breaks that style down. I had a lot of piano player do that.

But in the end, it was just too technical for the film. That's another thing that really breaks my heart, is that that stuff isn't in. But we hope that there will be, I don't know, other aspects...DVD extras, extras on the website. I do want to find a way to use some of that stuff, because it's still important. It just sits throughout my hard drive.

MRR:  When you chose to do it, what drove you to immortalize James Booker? Was it like one day you were like, oh, I think I'm going to do a movie on this guy, maybe? And then you start getting into it and then you just got to a point where you couldn't turn back, you were just too into it?

Lily:  I'd say yeah, that is kind of what happened. [laughs] I had been talking about it for a while. Like, ugh, I should really make something about Booker. It just came to the point where I was sick of hearing myself talk about it and not do it, so I started calling people. I think one real tribute to Booker's impact on people is that so many people... All I had to do was say to them, "I'm making a film about Booker," and that was enough for them to say yes. They didn't need to know me or see my resume or where I went to film school, which is good, because I didn't. It was just enough to say that I wanted to do this. I wanted to make sure that his memory wasn't forgotten.

A lot of people said yes right on scene, because even 30 years after his death, a lot of people still talk about him in the present tense. I think that he was such an intense person and unlike anyone else who's ever walked the face of the Earth, that that memory really has stuck with people. For people who knew him, the memory of him. And then for people who don't, especially younger musicians finding that music, it just is unlike anything they've ever heard.

I've gotten a lot of support along the way just from people who want to make sure that he doesn't go down as a footnote in history.

MRR:  Right. I think that it goes to show that there are still a lot of people with him, because I read somewhere that you run a Kickstarter for this and you raised quite a bit of money for it. Is that how you got the money for the film?

Lily:  I got all the money from the film either from donations or from the Kickstarter, and then I got one large grant from the state of Louisiana. They have a film program. But yeah, it was overwhelmingly from donations and Kickstarters from people that I don't know and will probably never meet. Probably once a week or so I get an email from someone telling me the first time they heard James Booker. It's usually they were at a party and someone put it on or someone handed them a CD and was like, you have to listen to this, and they did, and it was just, how have I never heard of this guy before? What's going on? Who's the other person playing at the piano?

I love those stories. I guess it's rare, in my life, that I've heard music that grabbed me that much, that I just couldn't let go, especially for piano players. I can't tell you how many people say it just changed their life, that they had never heard that before and that they'll probably spend the rest of their life trying to learn how to do it.

I don't know, it's interesting to me.

MRR:  You obviously talked to a lot of people because you went pretty much a lot through the US and through Europe, right? Trying finding and talking to people and getting as much as you could, didn't you?

Lily:  I did. I went to Europe only one time. Again, I never had much money for the film, so I just had to pack it all into two weeks. I took my boyfriend along as schlepper and sound guy and emotional support. Just like, you're going to do this. But that was really the fun thing about everything in the film. There's no money, there's no time, I don't know how we're going to get it done. Let's jump in and do it. And people to stay with them, really a lot of people in the film were like, yeah, you can stay with us, or I'm going to find you a friend, or here's a train ticket.

I think it was good because it really spurred a lot of people to go dig through their attics, find their book of photos, talk to their old friends, call people they hadn't talked to in years. "Hey, this girl's coming through. Do you know anyone who has pictures from the time that Booker played?" That's how a lot of those photos came to be. They had just been in photo albums in East Germany for the last 40 years.

MRR:  Wow. For all the Booker fans out there, what are some of your favorite songs that he has? I was listening to "Spider on the Keys," that album, and I was listening to his big songs, like "Gonzo" and "Tipitina" and stuff like that. What are some of the songs that stuck out for you?

Lily:  Unfortunately for all those Booker fans out there, a lot of my favorite stuff is not released. A lot of my favorite stuff is from his time in Europe. I think for one, the audience took him more seriously, so then he took himself more seriously. At least I can hear it in the level of musicianship. I love that album "New Orleans Piano Wizard Live" .

Nick:  Have you heard his Beatles melody from the "Mr. Mystery" album?

Lily:  Mm-hmm.

Lily:  One person suggested to me -- and I think it might actually be true -- that...I do actually think that he lost his eye shortly after he recorded that Ringo session. Whether or not Ringo had anything to do with it is a different story, but I do think that actually it was around that same time. He had feelings about the Beatles being tied up with his eyes, and whenever I hear him cover Beatles songs, there's a real melancholiness to it. I do wonder if the two are related.

MRR:  A lot of the stuff was recorded live, wasn't it?

Lily:  It was, yeah. I really think that he thrived in a live setting, because he needed that energy from the audience, which is why I think the two studio albums are a little flat, because he's just playing in a sterile environment.

MRR:  That makes a lot of sense, actually. I've been listening to him all day, and the spiders album, "Spiders on the Keys," is fantastic. That was live. And same with the one that you named, the one after, "Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah," that was live, I believe.

Lily:  Yeah, and those are both, again, in New Orleans at the Maple Leaf.

MRR:  He was the house pianist there, wasn't he?

Lily:  He had a regular gig there. I think he played Tuesdays for a while and then Wednesdays.

MRR:  That's crazy that you could have gone and seen him on a Tuesday or Wednesday, any week, same spot.

Lily:  It was a laundry mat at the time, so you could go do your laundry and then go see James Booker.

MRR:  Well, thank you so much for talking with me today. We really appreciate it. When is the film going to be out for our audience to be able to see it, do you think?

Lily:  That's the $64 million question. We're still looking for distribution and broadcast. We're playing film festivals for the foreseeable future. Yeah, I don't know.

MRR:  All right, well, you'll have to let us know exactly when it's going to be out. I'm sure it will hit around us, and I'm sure that it will be on VOD at some point, I'm hoping.

Lily:  Oh yeah, absolutely. It will definitely be on VOD. Again, I'm just going to try to hold out for broadcast first, because it will reach more eyes. If we don't get that, then we'll go for VOD. I always tell people if they want to know when future screenings are for the film, the Facebook page is really where I update the most. It's just Facebook.com/BayouMaharajah.

MRR:  Well, thank you so much, and I hope your film does incredible things.

Lily:  Thank you very much. Have a wonderful day.