James Booker was one of Harry Connick Jr.'s piano teachers.

Booker taught the organ to Dr. John, who has called Booker "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced."

Hunter S. Thompson's literary executor says Booker's song "Gonzo" was the origin for the term "gonzo journalism."

But Booker didn't rise to fame with those that he influenced. In 1983, the pianist and composer died early and tragically in the emergency room at New Orleans' Charity Hospital.

James Booker was only 43.

"Bayou Maharajah," a new documentary by filmmaker Lily Keber, tells the largely forgotten story of Booker's life and legacy. Hugh Laurie, Harry Connick Jr., Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Charles Neville are among those interviewed in the film, which also includes a variety of archival footage.

"Booker was a complicated character," Keber told me last week on the phone.

And the story of how Keber came to make the film is also complicated.

A graduate of Savannah Arts Academy and the University of Georgia, Keber found herself drawn to post-Katrina New Orleans.

"There was just the feeling that the future of the city was so unknown," said Keber, who seems drawn to mysteries and complex stories.

Almost by accident, Keber landed a job at Vaughan's Lounge on the eastern edge of the Bywater neighborhood.

During slow stretches, she explored the jukebox and began listening to Booker for the first time in her life. As she told me the story, Keber lapsed into present tense.

"People perk up and start telling stories about him," Keber said of those days at Vaughan's. "And every story is more bizarre than the last."

But Keber didn't decide to pursue this film lightly.

"For me, it was daunting crafting how someone is going to be remembered," Keber said. She told herself: "If I listen to enough stories, he will eventually start to take shape."

The critical reception for "Bayou Maharajah" suggests Keber got somewhere near the heart of Booker's story.

The Oxford American has called the film "one of most culturally important documentaries made in recent years."

The film has had sold out screenings at SXSW, Film Society at Lincoln Center, Outfest, Melbourne International Film Festival and New Orleans Film Festival.

"Booker knew something about life that I didn't," Keber told me. "I feel lucky that I've gotten to spend so much time with him."

"The film talks about what it takes to be creative in America," Keber said.

"Bayou Maharajah" screens at 6 p.m. Dec. 19 at the Jepson Center for the Arts on Telfair Square. Admission is $10 or $5 for students, cash only.

Bill Dawers writes City Talk in the Savannah Morning News and blogs at Savannah Unplugged (www.billdawers.com). He can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net.