Honeydripper (2007): John Syales Southern Tale Starring Danny Glover

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Honeydripper, the latest from pioneering American independent filmmaker John Sayles (Lone Star, Return of the Secaucus Seven), isnt in the league of his greatest films but it nonetheless contains enough of his storytelling trademarks to be moderately successful.

Examining the interaction of characters within a specific region in the country, the racially-tense, musically-rich South in 1950 Sayles again uses cinema to question how much our actions are determined by our environment. If some of his observations and filmmaking techniques are familiar from earlier works, at least the sincerity and care he brings to his story remain potent.

Tyrone Pine Top Purvis (Danny Glover) runs the Honeydripper Lounge, an Alabama juke joint thats seen better days. Tyrone doesnt get as many customers as he used to, and hes so far behind in his payments to his landlord that hes about ready to lose the club. In an attempt at changing his fortunes, he announces that famous musician Guitar Sam will be performing at the Honeydripper this upcoming Saturday night. But when Saturday comes, Guitar Sam is a no-show, forcing Tyrone to improvise. He recruits Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), a young guitar hotshot who has recently moved to town, to impersonate Guitar Sam and play his songs. Sonny certainly has the talent, but with the Honeydrippers future on the line, Tyrone has to hope his ruse will fool the community.

Like many of Sayles films, Honeydripper is at heart a sociological study, tracking the comings and goings of a group of characters within a highly specific regional setting. Where most filmmakers would spend their time focusing on character backgrounds, Sayles in addition gives the viewer a sense of the community, delineating the racial barriers, economic centers, and power elite. When Sayles marries a strong narrative to his impressive eye for authentic local color, his movies are evocative time capsules of place.

Sadly, Honeydripper has only a slight storyline, which limits its dramatic appeal. Returning to the multi-character narrative approach he used to good effect for Lone Star and the underrated Sunshine State, Sayles follows several different people within the town of Harmony, Alabama, to illustrate the communitys sharp divisions between rich and poor, white and black. Unfortunately, while Sayles characters are typically interesting and involving, very few of them resonate strong enough to linger in the memory. Even Danny Glovers Tyrone and Gary Clark Jr.s Sonny are more well-drawn Southern archetypes than unique individuals. As opposed to other Sayles films, where his confidence in his milieu extends to the depth of his characters, Honeydripper doesnt always find a fresh perspective on its look at the mid-century South. And the films unifying thread, the big buildup to the hoax concert at the Honeydripper Lounge, provides a sturdy plotline but reveals few surprises.

But with all that said, Sayles succeeds in supplying many small details throughout Honeydripper that keep things humming along. One of the films underlying themes is how the Souths love of blues, country, R&B and gospel would soon help form the foundations for rock n roll, and Sayles accordingly fills the soundtrack with vibrant tunes and populates the frame with many characters captured by the spell of American music. Tyrone used to be a piano player, Sonny longs to be as famous as Guitar Sam, and a wandering spirit (played with cheeky aplomb by musician Keb Mo) appears out of thin air to occasionally strum a guitar and offer cryptic advice to Tyrone. Though known for a somber, bone-dry dramatic style, Sayles adopts a more mysterious and mystical aura for Honeydripper, which creates the perfect tonal atmosphere for a story that celebrates the vibrant, sexual energy that inspired the earliest rock music.

Sayles has always been one of the sharpest American filmmakers at dissecting the evil of racism, and with Honeydripper he continues to illustrate how insidious its effects can be. Transcending simple clichs about good and evil, Sayles shows how even well-meaning whites (embodied by a small-but-excellent turn from Mary Steenburgen) can think of themselves as goodhearted people without realizing how they live in a world that allows other people to be oppressed. Unfortunately, Honeydripper isnt always so sharp in its characterizations: Stacy Keachs oafish sheriff is an on-the-nose racist redneck without dimensions or personality. But with his mostly African-American cast, Sayles does a great job of spotlighting the Souths mid-century segregation, demonstrating the black communitys misery but also its joys and everyday troubles.

As usual, Sayles wrote, directed and edited Honeydripper, and considering its overlong running time, one might wish that occasionally Sayles would cede more control over his projects to allow outside feedback. But despite its limitations, Honeydripper is remarkable simply because nobody makes movies like John Sayles does not even the man himself, sometimes.

Credits

Running time: 122 minutes

Director: John Sayles
Production companies: Honeydripper Films
US distribution: Emerging Pictures
Producer: Maggie Renzi
Screenplay: John Sayles
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Editor: John Sayles
Production design: Toby Corbett
Music: Mason Daring

Cast

Danny Glover (Tyrone Pine Top Purvis)
Lisa Gay Hamilton (Delilah)
Charles S. Dutton (Maceo)
Vondie Curtis Hall (Slick)
Gary Clark Jr. (Sonny)
Stacy Keach (Sheriff Pugh)
Keb Mo (Possum)
Yaya DaCosta (China Doll)