Honey Dripper : The Movie
Iconoclastic filmmaker John Sayles, in his 16th feature film, continues his extraordinary examination of the complexities and shifting identities of American sub-cultures in the new film “Honeydripper.” With his usual understated intelligence, Sayles uses the rhythms of the citizens of Harmony, Alabama to immerse the audience into the world of the Jim Crow south. It’s a fable about the birth of rock n’ roll-a quintessentially American subject, but with a fidelity to time and temperament that is unusual in an American director.
It’s 1950 and it’s a make or break weekend for Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), the proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge. Deep in debt, Tyrone is desperate to bring back the crowds that used to come to his place. He decides to lay off his long-time blues singer Bertha Mae, and announces that he’s hired a famous guitar player, Guitar Sam, for a one night only gig in order to save the club.
Into town drifts Sonny Blake, a young man with nothing to his name but big dreams and the guitar case in his hand. Rejected by Tyrone when he applies to play at the Honeydripper, he is intercepted by the corrupt local Sheriff, arrested for vagrancy and rented out as an unpaid cotton picker to the highest bidder. But when Tyrone’s ace-in-the-hole fails to materialize at the train station, his desperation leads him back to Sonny and the strange, wire-dangling object in his guitar case. The Honeydripper lounge is all set to play its part in rock n’ roll history.
Review From rogerebert.com
By Roger Ebert
John Sayles' "Honeydripper" is set at the intersection of two movements that would change American life forever: civil rights, and rhythm & blues. They may have more to do with each other than you might think, although that isn't his point. He's more concerned with spinning a ground-level human comedy than searching for pie in the sky. His movie is rich with characters and flowing with music.
The time, around 1950. The place, Harmony, Alabama. The chief location, the Honeydripper Lounge, which serves a good drink but is feeling the competition from a juke joint down the road. Its proprietor, Pine Top Purvis (Danny Glover), is desperately in debt. The wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), is causing him some concern: Will she get religion and disapprove of his business? His best friend, Maceo (Charles S. Dutton), is a sounding board for his problems. The nightmare is the local sheriff (Stacy Keach), who is a racist, but doesn't go overboard like most. Club characters: the blues singer (Mable John) and her man (Vondie Curtis-Hall).
Into Harmony one day comes a footloose young man named Sonny, played by Gary Clark Jr., in real life a rising guitar phenom. He drifts into the Honeydripper looking for a job or a meal, and carrying something no one has ever seen before: a homemade electric guitar, carved out of a solid block of wood. Pine Top has no work for him, and the youth is soon arrested by the sheriff (his crime: existing while unemployed) and put to work picking cotton for a crony.
Meanwhile, in desperation, Pine Top books the great Guitar Sam out of New Orleans and puts up posters all over town. Sure, he can't afford him, but the plan is, Guitar Sam will bring in enough business on one Saturday night to pay his own salary and also the lounge's worst bills. Pine Top finds out what real desperation is when Guitar Sam doesn't arrive on the train. He wonders if the kid with the funny guitar can play a little. After all, no one in Harmony knows what Guitar Sam really looks like.
Now all the pieces are in place for an unwinding of local race issues, personal issues, financial issues and some very, very good music, poised just at that point when the blues were turning into rhythm and blues, which after all is what rock 'n' roll is only an alias for. Because after all, yes, the kid can play a little. More than a little.
John Sayles has made 19 films, and none of them are two-character studies. As the writer of his own work, he instinctively embraces the communities in which they take place. He's never met a man who was an island. Everyone connects, and when that includes black and white, rich and poor, young and old, there are lessons to be learned, and his generosity to his characters overflows into affection.
Danny Glover is well cast to stand at the center of this story. A tall, imposing, grave presence as Pine Top, he is not so much a music lover as a survivor. This is his last chance to save the Honeydripper and his means of making a living. And Gary Clark Jr. is the right man to be told: "Tonight, you are Guitar Sam." He may be a prodigy, but he is broke, scared, young and far from home. So this isn't one of those show-biz stories where a talent scout is in the audience, but a story where the audience looks at him with great suspicion until his music makes them smile.
As for the sheriff's role: As I suggested, lots of Alabama sheriffs were more racist than he is, which is not a character recommendation, but means that he isn't evil just to pass the time and would rather avoid trouble than work up a sweat. At that time, in that place, he was about the best you could hope for. Within a few more years, the Bull Connors would be run out of town, one man would have one vote, and the music of the African-American South would rule the world. That all had to start somewhere. It didn't start on Saturday night at the Honeydripper, but it didn't stop there, either.