From his home base in New Jersey to Louisiana, Texas, Alaska and Florida, filmmaker John Sayles has crisscrossed the country weaving sprawling stories in such films as “City of Hope,” “Passion Fish,” “Lone Star,” “Limbo” and “Sunshine State.” Unique among his peers, the Schenectady native travels his own road dramatizing an Americana streaked with social realism and a touch of the magical.
For “Honeydripper,” Sayles’ 16th film as a writer-director, he turns to the roots of rock ’n’ roll for his subject and 1950 Alabama for his locale. A musical fable, the film uses his typically robust ensemble performances, crackling dialogue and a boogie-woogie soul to tell the story of a man facing a crossroads in the small town of Harmony.
Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis (Danny Glover) is a former blues piano player eking out a living from his run-down juke joint, the Honeydripper Lounge, with the help of wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), stepdaughter China Doll (YaYa DaCosta) and right-hand man Maceo (Charles S. Dutton). The tunes that his regular live act, Bertha Mae (Dr. Mable John), belts out are a bit on the mournful side, and the Honeydripper’s once rollicking crowds have moved on, lured by a more swinging club down the road.
In conjuring the Jim Crow South, Sayles populates the film with archetypes, then subverts them by placing little narrative time bombs in their midst. Characters such as the enigmatic blind guitar picker (Keb’ Mo’) and the corrupt sheriff (Stacy Keach) have an edge to them that challenges our expectations. Even a trio of cotton-picking field workers — Dex (Sean Patrick Thomas), Ham (Eric Abrams) and Junebug (Kel Mitchell) — possesses a brewing volatility that gives the story a powder keg of a bass line.
From a passing freight train hops a shyly confident young man with a guitar in his hand and destiny on his side. Tired and hungry, Sonny Blake (Gary Clark Jr.) interprets the name Harmony as a good omen but is quickly put straight by a kindly railroad man who tells him that the only night he ever spent in jail was in a place called Liberty.
Unbowed, Sonny turns up at the Honeydripper seeking a gig. Tyrone feeds him, then sends him on his way, preoccupied with a scheme to save the club. The end of an era weighs heavily on Tyrone, and he’s just desperate enough to try anything.
Tyrone gives Bertha Mae her notice and gambles everything on a one-night engagement of a relatively famous musician from New Orleans known as Guitar Sam. The problem is, Tyrone doesn’t know if Sam will show or even what he looks like if he does.
Everything builds toward the fateful Saturday night when Guitar Sam is scheduled to appear. As Tyrone’s plan unravels and he’s forced to improvise, Sayles carefully intertwines subplots that support and enhance the main story line. Meanwhile, Delilah faces her own dilemma, torn between remaining at her husband’s side or committing further to the revival tent she has been frequenting.
Sayles takes a practical aesthetic approach deploying Mike Leigh regular Dick Pope as his director of photography. Together with production designer Toby Corbett and costume designer Hope Hanafin, they get their visual cues from the narrative and the music, creating a rich, down-to-earth environment where violence and magic seem equally possible. Music may be “Honeydripper’s” most indelible element, and Sayles and his longtime collaborator, composer Mason Daring, seamlessly incorporate several original songs alongside the soundtrack’s period tunes. All of the musical performers with the exception of Glover are actual musicians, and the level of authenticity elevates the film.
Changing times are a dominant theme in Sayles’ work and most of his films put forth very specific social issues, but in “Honeydripper” these matters are mostly percolating beneath the surface. The film evocatively charts a time and place where change has been a long time coming and buoyantly imagines a turning point where, at least musically, anything is possible.
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY John Sayles
STARRING Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Charles S. Dutton, Gary Clark Jr., Keb’ Mo’ and Stacy Keach
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes