I live here.
That phrase is all that's needed to send the message that you're not a tourist, and you're not interested in whatever mainstream fare they're selling. Its sentiment also infuses director Jeremy Campbell's new documentary, Don't Worry Honey, I Live Here, an insider's look at some of the priceless traditions -- off the beaten path for most tourists -- that fuel the local Carnival spirit. While most Mardi Gras coverage predictably focuses on Bourbon Street debauchery, Campbell points his cameras elsewhere: to the overall vibe and drum circles on Frenchmen Street on Lundi Gras; the Mardi Gras Indians parading under the Claiborne Avenue overpass; the confrontations between revelers and the religious missionaries working the French Quarter. And as interview subjects tell their Mardi Gras experiences, funky establishments like the Hi-Ho Lounge get their due.
With the exception of Mardi Gras historian Henri Schindler, poet John Sinclair, artist Lionel Milton, OffBeat publisher Jan Ramsey and a number of man-on-the-street interviews, the commentary for Don't Worry Honey, I Live Here is provided by a diverse group of New Orleans musicians, including Irma Thomas, Morning 40 Federation, Marva Wright, Jeremy Lyons, Kermit Ruffins, Jason Marsalis, Irene Sage, Stanton Moore, John Gros and Benny Grunch.
Along with the multiple interviews, it's obvious that director Campbell put in some serious hours working on the documentary, just from the varied, sometimes surprising scenes that made his final cut. Ever wonder what kind of lunacy happens when an inebriated group with unicycles and homemade lances stages their own medieval jousting battles late at night on a French Quarter side street -- with fireworks exploding everywhere as a backdrop? Never got to see two rival Mardi Gras Indian chiefs come face-to-face surrounded by second-liners? Wondered what an afternoon Mardi Gras Indian practice by the Fi Yi Yi gang in Armstrong Park would be like? Want to hear the Treme Brass Band leading a parade? Those are just a few of the indigenous, authentic moments that Campbell captures, and he does it unobtrusively, never inserting himself into the mix and letting the moments speak for themselves.
You'd think that the documentary's momentum would come to a screeching halt with the first appearance of the avuncular and bespectacled Schindler, dressed in a sweater and talking in quiet tones like Mr. Rogers commenting on Carnival. But Schindler gives Don't Worry Honey, I Live Here some of its most erudite and scathing commentary, addressing the religious aspects of Carnival and offering a brilliant take on the religious zealots who attempt to save souls. To Campbell's credit, all the interview segments provide valuable context, whether it's Sage describing the pandemonium inside Check Point Charlie's during Mardi Gras, Ramsey reminiscing about her parents pulling her and her brother in costumes in a wagon through the Quarter, or Grunch recalling a morbid but telling incident at the Fairmont Hotel.
That said, the main disappointment about Don't Worry Honey, I Live Here is that for all its focus on the musical aspect of Mardi Gras, and musicians' comments on the atmosphere of during Carnival, there aren't any live music performances, or even snippets of selected gigs, although there's a nice range of Carnival music used as background.
Ultimately, Campbell successfully documents the loose, spirited and funky vibe that pulses through local Carnival traditions. The film's sometimes-grainy shots, especially in the night scenes, work in its favor. A particularly priceless segment comes when the members of Morning 40 Federation are interviewed on the front porch of a shotgun house, while a strong Gulf Coast breeze whips their hair around and sounds like a wind tunnel through their microphones. By the time the documentary comes to a close to the melancholy strains of Anders Osborne's "Ash Wednesday Blues," it's moments like that will hopefully give out-of-towners a new respect for local Carnival traditions. Those same moments will inspire recognition and appreciation from anyone who lives here.