By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 1, 2008)
Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side
We can still barrelhouse baby, on the riverside.
-Robert Johnson, Traveling Riverside Blues
In his latest film, director John Sayles transports us back to the deep south of the early 1950s, evoking the earthy poetry of the Delta, outfitting it in shades of August Wilson and transferring it to the screen. Essentially a languidly paced folk tale, set in an Alabama backwater called Harmony, Honeydripper rolls along, slow and steady, like a glass bottle sliding up a steel string, and is easily his most engaging ensemble piece since Lone Star.
Surrounded by cotton fields, adjacent to a small military post and connected to the rest of the world by a lone train station and a few dusty country roads, the town of Harmony is classic Mythic South, all the way. This is a place where black and white residents each literally live on their respective “side of the tracks”. The “Honeydripper” is the name of a ramshackle music club on the edge of town (um, down by the crossroads) run by a barrel house piano player named Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Danny Glover). As the film opens, Purvis and his business partner Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) are scrambling to stay one step ahead of the debt collectors. Purvis has been losing business to a neighboring juke joint, due to his curious aversion to hiring guitar acts or acquiescing to the jukebox.
Enter a young, wispy railroad tramp named Sonny (Gary Clark, Jr.) who blows into Harmony on the night train, with little more than the clothes on his back…and a guitar. The next morning, in search of a gig, he finds his way to the Honeydripper, where Purvis feeds him breakfast, then politely shows him the door, suggesting that he might have better luck finding a job at one of the local cotton plantations. Unfortunately, Sonny is soon intercepted by a corrupt county sheriff (a hammy Stacey Keach, veritably oozing Eau de Peckerwood) who runs a hustle “arresting” drifters for vagrancy and then indenturing them to local plantation owners for a kickback.
In the meantime, the reluctant Purvis is talked into booking a New Orleans guitar legend, Guitar Sam, for a “one night only” appearance, with the hope that the draw will bring in enough money to stave off the landlord’s threat to pull the plug on his lease. However, when Guitar Sam fails to show up at the train station on the morning of the heavily promoted show, the situation starts to look pretty grim. Then, Purvis remembers the young guitarist; a light bulb appears and…well, I think you know where this is going.
Honeydripper is rife with many of Sayles’ pet themes, such as family ties, culture clash, tests of faith, class warfare and local politics. Like all good folk tales, Honeydripper has an elemental narrative structure (not to be confused with “simplistic”). When he is operating at full tilt, Sayles’ strengths as a screenwriter lie in his canny gift for perceptive, true-to-character dialog and in his ability for drawing rich characterizations. His penchant for leisurely pacing occasionally backfires (Silver City and Sunshine State were uncharacteristically flat; and I literally dozed off during the interminable Men With Guns) but when he’s “on” (City of Hope, Passion Fish, Baby It’s You, Brother From Another Planet, Limbo, Lone Star) there are few of his American indie contemporaries that can touch him. You can add Honeydripper to the latter list.
Sayles captures the sultry southern atmosphere to a tee, thanks in no small part to the excellent DP work by British cinematographer Dick Pope (who has worked on most of Mike Leigh’s films). The director’s distinctive feel for regional Americana and sharp eye for period detail (evidenced previously in Matewan and Eight Men Out) is on form here as well.
Per usual, Sayles employs a sizeable cast, and every speaking part, large or small, is well written and fleshed out. Glover and Dutton are both wonderful actors, and do an excellent job; newcomer Clark makes a splash in an impressive film debut. Real life blues guitarist Keb’Mo’ does a memorable turn as a cryptic, somewhat spectral character who pulls double duty as a tangential narrator and Greek Chorus for the tale. In another bit of inspired stunt casting, singer Mable John appears in a brief role as the Honeydripper house act (she was a backup singer for Ray Charles and is the sister of blues great Little Willie John). There’s good support as well from Lisa Gay Hamilton, Mary Steenburgen and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Fans of blues, gospel and roots rock ’n’ roll will dig the music performances, and Sayles aficionados will not be disappointed.