'Hugely successful' Ebertfest comes to a close
CHAMPAIGN — Ebertfest 2014 couldn't have ended on a better note, emcee Chaz Ebert said Sunday afternoon after Henry Butler performed.
The pianist took the Virginia Theatre stage to play four songs in tribute to New Orleans and the city's late "piano prince" — James Booker, the subject of the last Ebertfest movie, the documentary "Bayou Maharajah."
Himself a piano wizard who once worked in New Orleans, Butler called the new documentary directed by Lily Keber and co-produced by Ebertfest director Nate Kohn "the most powerful film made about any New Orleans musician."
Butler knew Booker, whom he called "a wonderful musician, a genius of a musician," but said he never wanted to hang with him.
"Because I knew my life was different. A lot of people loved him and appreciated him but did not want to spend a lot of time with him."
Booker, whom Keber called a complicated character, began performing at a young age and had a regional hit record at age 14. When he was 16 he had himself emancipated so he could perform in New Orleans bars.
At the age of 8 or 9, Booker was injured when he was hit by an ambulance traveling at 70 miles per hour. In the hospital he was given morphine for his pain. As an adult, he became addicted to heroin, was alcoholic and possibly manic-depressive and paranoid schizophrenic.
But he was an amazing virtuosic pianist who could perform any style from boogie to classical and a major influence on other musicians, among them Hugh Laurie and Harry Connick Jr., whose father was elected district attorney in New Orleans in 1974.
"He could play more notes per second than anyone I know," Connick Jr. says of Booker in the documentary.
The younger Connick would ask Booker how he did it and Booker would demonstrate for him — and also call Connick at 2 or 3 in the morning, asking him to come get him. At the time Connick was 12.
The documentary tells of how Booker also spent time in Europe, where people who heard him were more appreciative of his vast talents than were most of the people in his native country. Most of Booker's recordings were made in Europe and are not available in the U.S., Keber said.
Booker, a flamboyant character who called himself the Black Liberace, died in 1983 after someone put him in a taxi and sent him to Charity Hospital in New Orleans. He passed in the emergency room, before being triaged. He was 43.
The documentary features footage of his funeral as well as footage of New Orleans from the '50s to '70s, plus 16mm black-and-white time lapse footage that was shot for the documentary.
"It was difficult to find footage," Kohn said. "A lot of that is due to the storm, and people's private libraries disappearing."
"Bayou Maharajah" has been shown at numerous film festivals. At the Little Rock Film Festival it won the Oxford American Best Southern Film Award, with $10,000 prize money.
The filmmakers will need the money, plus more.
"Bayou Maharajah" features nearly 49 different pieces of music including a little bit of a Beatles song, Kohn said. He and the producers are still in the long and tedious process of clearing the rights to the music.
His advice to filmmakers: "Clear your music first and then make your film."
The Booker bio was one of two documentaries shown at Ebertfest 2014; the other was Steves James' "Life Itself," which opened the festival Wednesday evening. The new documentary about Roger Ebert left the audience stunned; it shows graphic footage of him in his last days.
The 10 other movies shown over the five-day festival were mainly dramas including the melodramatic silent classic "He Who Gets Slapped," starring Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer, with a live original score by the Alloy Orchestra. At least one silent film is shown at each annual Ebertfest.
Three of the movies shown at this 16th annual festival were directed by women: Keber; Ann Hui, Hong Kong's leading female director; and Haifaa Al-Mansour, who with "Wadjda" broke ground in her native Saudi Arabia, making the first full-length feature film ever in that kingdom.
The festival also featured two 1989 blockbusters: "Capote," with Oscar-nominated director Bennett Miller in person, and "Born on the Fourth of July," with director Oliver Stone in his still-strong political personhood.
Besides "Wadjda," the other two audience favorites seemed to be "Short Term 12," a naturalistic film about young line staff members at a youth facility that stars Brie Larson, who was here in person; and Hui's "A Simple Life," about the tender caretaking a busy Hong Kong businessman gives his family's lifelong servant at the end of her life. As the servant, actress Deanie Ip gives a deeply affecting performance.
Kohn described the 2014 Ebertfest as "hugely successful."
"A lot of people yesterday (Saturday) told me they thought it was a perfect Ebertfest day, that the films in combination made up an extraordinary cinema-going experience," he said.
Saturday's lineup: "Wadjda;" "A Simple Life"; three-time Ebertfest guest Ramin Bahrani's "Goodbye Solo"; and Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" — 35mm prints of that and Capote were shown.
Kohn also noted that the audiences for each film were larger than in any other previous festival. All of the people who waited in line for tickets to sold-out movies were admitted including the 160 for "Do the Right Thing," shown Friday night, with director Spike Lee appearing on stage afterward.
Kohn sees the attendance and feedback so far as a validation of the festival, a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media, Roger Ebert's alma mater.
This was the second Ebertfest that took place without Ebert here in person; he died April 4, 2013.
After the festival ended Sunday, some of the festival-goers walked to the nearby Art Theater Co-op to see the short film "The Thinking Molecules of Titan," adapted from an unfinished sci-fi story Roger Ebert wrote during his final days in the hospital.
Andrew Stengele directed and co-wrote the script with Patrick Wang, who brought his drama "In the Family" to last year's Ebertfest. Stengele and his local cast and crew made the short recently on the UI campus; it seemed to be a message from Roger Ebert in the beyond.
In it, Lindsey Gates-Markel figures out that sounds picked up from Titan, Saturn's moon, have the same rhythms used by the UI's early Plato computer to teach kids the "Illinois Loyalty" song.
The short ends with Gates-Markel and another character looking at and talking about the UI's beloved Alma Mater statue and its inscription, "To thy happy children of the future those of the past send greetings."