RIFF Closes Strong with Bayou Maharajah

For the 10th anniversary of Indie Week in Toronto, audiences were invited to attend a new companion program: the Reel Indie Film Festival.  Sponsored by the motion picture equipment facility William F. White, which itself is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the film festival ran from October 16th-20th with nightly screenings at The Royal Cinema, showcasing music videos and films in both long and short formats.

Executive Director Avi Federgreen outlined his intention behind the festival and the year’s selections, describing a focus on “stories that capture music’s cultural and emotional history, as well as music’s ability to move people.”  These core themes are all represented to great effect in the festival’s closing lineup, which featured a touching music video for David Wingo‘s Indie Rock project Ola Podrida, followed by director Kyle Bogart‘s hilarious short film Necronomica, and finishing with a fantastic biopic entitled Bayou Maharajah, which Federgreen personally cited as his key inspiration behind the entire festival.

“Some Sweet Relief”  (Music Video)
The video for Ola Podrida’s “Some Sweet Relief” depicts a touching story of a lonely single father and his son, told in parallel as they struggle against a series of small failures in their separate daily lives before meeting and spending a few hours of quality time together. Wingo’s haunting falsetto permeates much of the song, painting a very personal and heartbreaking history to the visual story as it unfolds. The hurdles present in both of these characters’ lives are reconciled with a cathartic ending that reminds us of the beauty that can be found in small moments, as the father and son find themselves sharing laughs on carnival rides and sitting in awe as fireworks reign beautiful chaos overhead.

Necronomica  (Short Film)
Following up with a dose of comedy was Kyle Bogart’s short film Necronomica, which depicts Black Metal bandmates Borknarg and Absu struggling to achieve the status of “most evil band in the world” in the wake of their drummer Mortimus leaving their group.  This dialogue-heavy short plays off the irony of these two rockers’ emotional fragility and dwindling self-confidence in the face of an upcoming live performance, and offers a revealing (if satirical) look at the belief and commitment it takes to be a musician with an elaborate “evil” stage-presence. The film never shows the actual performance itself, instead relying on the comedic timing of these two long-haired goons with painted faces, who gradually address their inner-fears through open discussion until a bloody and explosive final shot earns a big laugh from the audience, and sends this short off with a bang.

Bayou Maharajah (Feature Film)
Documentary filmmaker Lily Keber closed out the Reel Indie Film Festival with her highly personal biopic Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, which explores the life and music of one of the greatest lost talents ever produced by the New Orleans music scene: one-eyed piano legend James Booker.  Considered a revolutionary genius capable of weaving in and out of musical styles with ease, and playing more notes-per-second than most professional pianists could even dream of matching, Booker also lived a troubled life that was constantly plagued by drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and a lukewarm audience reception.  Despite extensive touring throughout the US and Europe in the ’70s and ’80s, as well as an impressive history of musical collaboration with some of the industry’s biggest names, Booker never succeeded in making a name for himself, instead simply “simmering in obscurity” as Keber describes on the Kickstarter page she created to help fund the film.

The documentary contains a slew of previously unreleased material showcasing Booker’s legendary live performance and flamboyant personality, and succeeds in honouring his undeniable talents while still painting an accurate portrait of his difficult and often depressing life.  Several musicians speak of their experiences with the “Piano Prince from New Orleans”, most notably his close friend Harry Connick Jr. whom Booker taught to play at a very young age, both directly and through creative influence.  As his story approaches its end, and the venues get smaller and smaller, a sense of loneliness and desperation begins to take over the narrative, accentuated by his heartbreaking performance of the song “True” recorded live at Montreux in 1978.  While Bayou Maharajah is surely not the easiest film to watch due to its unrelenting honesty, it remains a powerful and unforgettable window into the life of an incredibly talented man who was overlooked and misunderstood in his own time.

Mark D'Amico

Mark D'Amico

Film Editor and Writer at Addicted
Mark is a lover of film, television and literature, with a particular passion for all things horror. Born on the 31st of October, he was conditioned at an early age to perceive zombies, vampires and masked lunatics as signs of forthcoming presents and candy. He also has several years of experience working in the film, television and advertising industries, both on set in the camera department, and in the harrowing world of post-production.
Mark D'Amico

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