James Booker at the 1978 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Photo by Michael P. Smith.

James Booker Documentary Coming to Netflix in September

Lily Keber’s documentary about New Orleans piano virtuoso James Booker, Bayou Maharajah, will be available for streaming on Netflix starting this Thursday, September 1. The popular web-based streaming platform will undoubtedly spur interest in the fascinating film, which made its festival debut three years ago and was first released on DVD this June.

MAHARAJAH4Often called the “Black Liberace” on account of his flamboyancy, James Booker was also known as “Bayou Maharajah,” a reference to the Indian princes who shared a similarly eccentric style. Yet none of Booker’s nicknames provide as much insight into his life and work as the words of Dr. John, who preferred to describe him as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” Booker may have possessed musical brilliance and legendary showmanship, but his life was marred by struggle, prejudice, and isolation.

The critically-acclaimed Bayou Maharajah never shies away from the raw truth within Booker’s story, while also presenting his larger than life personality with performance footage and interviews of admiring contemporaries like Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Irma Thomas and Charles Neville.

The upcoming Netflix release marks a successful end to an arduous distribution journey that, according to Keber, often mirrored the struggles Booker himself faced.  Just as his genius was often overlooked by businesspersons and investors, so too was the need for a documentary about his life. It took three years of sourcing funds from the iconic pianist’s fans to raise enough money to release the film, but it looks like the work has finally paid off in a big way.

  • Please credit the renowned NOLA photographer Michael P. Smith for the photograph of James Booker performing at Jazz Fest in 1978. Thank you.