Tchoupitoulas, a semi-documentary set in and near the French Quarter, looks for magic and sometimes finds it.
Co-directing brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross and their hand-held cameras trail three brothers from Algiers who ride the ferry to Canal Street. The siblings experience a meandering, sometimes kaleidoscopic night in New Orleans. They also get bored and weary.
Little brother William Zanders, talkative and mostly irrepressible, is the whimsical star of the show. He’s also the occasional narrator, a boy capable of saying nearly mystical things.
“Life ain’t go’ be always what it seems,” William says. “Gotta keep movin’ on.”
William and his teen brothers, Bryan and Kentrell, and their leashed pet, Buttercup, soon come upon a funky brass band featuring a bright trumpet, throbbing sousaphone bass notes and showering percussion.
A walk down Bourbon Street provides a carnival of sights and sounds. The boys pass strip joints and street preachers. “God loves you!” a preacher says. “Turn from your sin!”
One Bourbon Street evangelist plucks William from the crowd for some personal soul-saving. The boy listens but, at least in the context of Tchoupitoulas, his mind moves quickly to worldly things. He wants to fly to Los Angeles to see the daddy he’s never known. And while he’s in Hollywood, he’ll just go ahead on and get his name on the Walk of Fame.
The Zanders brothers are the movie’s principals, but Tchoupitoulas also casts them as conduits to the city’s nightlife. A tap dancer’s feet are seen in close-up. A gregarious oyster shucker serves Louisiana seafood with heavy helpings of tourist-targeted jive. And the Zanders brothers are nowhere in sight when a street musician on Frenchmen plays impromptu accompaniment for a lone, apparently three-sheets-to-the-wind dancer.
The brothers don’t see the movie’s burlesque performance or its strippers in their dressing room, but William is delighted with what he does see.
“This is everything I hoped for,” he says. “Naked pictures, clubs.”
The timing of the boys’ midnight ramble is a little confusing. A Mardi Gras parade scene featuring a glimpse of an eye patch-sporting Dr. John on a float as well as images of a packed Bourbon Street suggest it’s Mardi Gras day or, at least, Mardi Gras season. In fact, the movie was shot over a period of many months.
Chronology issues can be distracting, but probably more for locals than out-of-towners who already believe Mardi Gras parades roll through the streets of New Orleans every day. At 80 minutes, the film also feels a bit long. That’s probably an example of the filmmakers’ affection for their subjects, both the Zanders brothers and the city.
As the boys and their still-developing senses take everything in, their walkabout of discovery becomes a diverting trek and, in places, Tchoupitoulas is a film of beautifully evolving breadth.