Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/18/08 00:00:00

"Heading To The Top Of The Sayles Charts"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When it comes to the career of John Sayles, the writer-director who has been at the forefront of the American independent filmmaking movement long before anyone had ever heard of the likes of Jarmusch, Soderbergh, Tarantino or Sundance–hell, before most people knew that such a thing as an American independent filmmaking movement even existed–I have always been of two minds. On the one hand, the part of me that admires unique filmmaking voices has always appreciated his drive and willingness to work outside the Hollywood studio system to make his own distinctive films and some of them have turned out to be genuinely great films–I’m thinking of his quirky sci-fi satire “The Brother from Another Planet” (1984), his searing urban drama “City of Hope” (1991), the charming family fantasy “The Secret of Roan Inish” (1994), the powerful multi-generational drama “Lone Star” and his defiantly unknowable “Limbo” (1999). (Of course, I also revere the screenplays he wrote in the early days of his career for such B-movie classics as “Piranha,” “Alligator,” “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “The Howling.”) On the other hand, his films can occasionally be too earnest for their own good and while I know and respect the purity of his intentions, I must also admit that I would almost rather sit through a complete retrospective of the works of Michael Bay before again sitting through the likes of “Men With Guns” again. In essence, he is sometimes like the cinematic equivalent of Ani DiFranco–the do-it-yourself aesthetic is something to celebrate and it occasionally results in something truly great but there are times when the idea of Sayles can be more entertaining than the actual work.

In the last few years, Sayles’ output has been somewhat erratic and uneven. “Sunshine State” (2002) was a pretty good drama about a small Florida tourist town caught in the web of “progress” that was hampered by a couple of soapy subplots and the fact that it was material that he handled more effectively in “City of Hope” (which is his best film to date in my view) and the first half of “Limbo.” “Casa de los babys” (2003) was an earnest melodrama about a group of American women trying to adopt some South American babies that wound up coming across like a Lifetime movie. “Silver City” (2004), arguably his weakest film, was a political drama that he quickly put together to coincide with the presidential election that was so shrill and obvious that even the liberal-minded viewers who were its target audience found it to be a little too ham-handed for their tastes. Happily, with his latest effort, “Honeydripper,” his recent rough patch seems to have come to an end as he has given us his most intriguing and cheerfully entertaining work since “Limbo”–a loose and engaging tale that offers viewers a penetrating and surprising look at small-town life in the Deep South in the early 1950's while also giving them a glimpse of the birth of a little thing called rock-and-roll music. Think of it as cultural anthropology with a beat that you can dance to.

Set in 1950, “Honeydripper” takes place in Harmony, a rural Alabama town that is home to cotton fields, a nearby Army base churning out new recruits in order to ship them off to Korea and a pair of juke joints where the pickers and the soldiers go to blow off steam and spend their money on a Saturday night of wine, women and song. The more successful of the two is Touissant’s, which lures the patrons in with a fancy jukebox that plays all the hits of the day. Across the way is the Honeydripper Lounge, a low-rent joint run by piano-player-with-a-past Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis that stubbornly continues to offer up live music to its few loyal patrons. As the story opens, Tyrone is up to his ears in debt, the liquor man won’t extend any credit so that he can restock (though Tyrone does manage to find a neat way of sidestepping that potential catastrophe) and if he doesn’t come up with $200 by Saturday, he will lose the club for good. However, like any clever club owner, Tyrone has a plan and he confides it to loyal sidekick Maceo (Charles S. Dutton)–he has hired legendary and mysterious bluesman Guitar Sam to appear at the Honeydripper that Saturday night for a one-time concert, an event that will hopefully lure enough people wanting to hear Sam’s electric guitar licks to raise the money to save the club and pay off his debts for good.

Alas, like most great plans, it turns out to be too good to be true and when Tyrone arrives at the train station to meet Guitar Sam on the day of the show, after having spent what little money he had (and more that he didn’t) in order to prepare for the big event, he discovers to his horror that the musician never got on the train. Unwilling to admit defeat, Tyrone comes up with a last-ditch plan. Earlier in the week, a young guitarist named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) turned up at the club looking for work and boldly claiming that he can play just as well as Guitar Sam. As this was a time when most blues musicians were heard instead of seen, Tyrone thinks that if he can get Sonny to pretend to be Guitar Sam and play for the crowd, the ruse might be able to hold long enough for Tyrone to grab the gate receipts and flee before anyone knows the difference. There are still a couple of problems. For starters, Sonny has been picked up for vagrancy by the deceptively benign Sheriff Pugh (Stacy Keach) and sent to pick Cotton and Tyrone has to somehow convince the sheriff to free him in order to play the gig. Even if he does pull that off, there is the unavoidable fact that no one at the club has heard Sonny play before and for all that he knows, the kid could be just another punk overselling his abilities in order to make a buck.

Whether Tyrone’s plan to save the Honeydripper succeeds or not is something that I will leave for you to discover but one of the things that is wonderful about “Honeydripper” is that Sayles has a lot more on his mind than simply constructing a story that leads to a single payoff. Instead, he is more interested in recreating a period in time that is undergoing a seismic change even as the characters go about their daily business–an idea that he has explored at length in many of his best films. Here, as in his best films, it is a concept that he pulls off not with lavish production design but with a keen ear for dialogue and human behavior. Like the era that it recreates, the story moves at its own unhurried pace and makes room for any number of side stories (such as a visit with rich Southern belle played by Mary Steenburgen) that don’t really contribute to the central plot but which add so much flavor to the proceedings that the film is unthinkable without them. I also admired the way in which the screenplay manages to avoid the cliches of rural Southern life that other films might have reveled in. Take the character of Sheriff Pugh–when we first see him, especially when we recognize that he his being played by legendary screen hardass Stacy Keach, we expect that he is going to turn out to be the standard-issue redneck cop that we have seen in any number of films set in this time and place. Without going into too much detail, I will merely suggest that Sayles has chosen to make the sheriff a character instead of a caricature and as a result, what might have been depressingly familiar instead turns into a genuine narrative curveball that adds an extra layer of suspense to the finale.

Even in his weaker efforts, Sayles has always gotten good work from his actors and that continues to be the case with “Honeydripper.” Instead of coming across as just another noble Negro dreamer, Danny Glover makes Tyrone into a fully fleshed-out character who is undeniably charming but whose desperation over the possibility of losing his club drives him to do some not-exactly-noble things. Glover may have the central role but he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Stacy Keach, a good actor who has rarely gotten the chance to play anything other than tough guys like Mike Hammer, is remarkable as the slippery sheriff (his presence during the finale inspires one of the film’s best moments), Charles S. Dutton is strong and sure as Tyrone’s pal and there are nice moments from the likes of YaYa DeCosta as Tyrone’s daughter, Vondie Curtis-Hall as the shifty owner of the joint across the way and newcomer Gary Clark Jr. as Sonny. And while it might not be thought of as a character in the traditional sense, the music selected for the movie–a combination of old classics (there is a nice moment in which Tyrone talks about how much he hates the murder ballad perennial “Staggolee,” no doubt because of the personal connotations) and a couple of new tunes co-written by Sayles and longtime collaborator Mason Daring–has such a vibrant presence that it almost feels like another member of the cast. (This is definitely one of those films where you will leave the theater in search of a music store so that you can pick up the soundtrack.)

Because it a film that is flying under the radar, even by the standards of independent filmmaking and distribution, and because of the current glut of fine films aimed at adult audiences, there is a danger that a film like “Honeydripper” may wind up falling through the cracks–this is a shame because it is the strongest effort from John Sayles, a true American original, to come along in a while. If you are in a city that it is lucky enough to be playing in, you should definitely whatever effort you have to in order to catch it. If you aren’t, you should make a note to put it on your Netflix queue as soon as possible so that you can eventually get a chance to see it. This is a film that is smart, funny, thoughtful and offers viewers an eye-and-ear-opening look at a specific place and time. Music buffs should make an extra effort to seek it out–if a life can be saved by rock-and-roll, as Lou Reed once wrote, then “Honeydripper” gives us a clear-eyed and toe-tapping look at one of its first miracle cures.

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