John Sayles is an odd filmmaker in that his work seems oddly isolated from everything else Hollywood puts out. He’s almost a textbook example of what an auteur is, in that one can guess he directed a film simply by watching a single scene, but pinpointing why his work is recognizable is not always as easy as it is with other filmmakers. There’s something in the dialogue, the way the actors behave, and the ambitious aim of his uniquely American stories that positively define his work behind the camera. His newest film, Honeydripper, was mostly ignored in theaters and I had hoped that it would be an underappreciated gem; unfortunately it’s minor Sayles at best.
The film is set in a fictional Alabama town of Harmony during the very early 1950s. The film specifically focuses on Harmony’s black community, particularly a tavern/dance hall called the Honeydripper. The venue is owned by Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), but it has fallen on hard times. Purvis is in danger of losing the place to a loan shark, so he and his friend Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) plan a last ditch effort to stay in business by bringing in a famous blues musician named Guitar Sam to play a big gig that would generate enough money to pay Purvis’ rent. Purvis has recently drifted away from his wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and is also being threatened by the town’s racist sheriff (Stacy Keach). Meanwhile a young man named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) has arrived in town carrying a guitar case and interested in auditioning at the local music scene to make ends meet. Purvis can’t really afford the show he plans to put on and it becomes clear that the evening’s entertainment will be a make or break night for him and the Honeydripper.
There was a lot less music in the film then I had expected, the story clearly deals with people who have music as a major part of their life, but the soundtrack is not loaded with period music. There is a great performance scene toward the end which features the use of a very early electric guitar, the music played is a primitive and toe tapping form of rock and roll.
The movie’s main problem is mainly that it has a lot of southern clichés. Among the types to be found here: a redneck sheriff, an eager young man gone to town to make something of his music career, a white southern housewife oblivious to the rest of the world, and a blind old coot who plays guitar on main street stoops. Occasionally Sayles will do some unexpected things with these types, for instance that Sheriff proves to ultimately be more interested in getting free chicken than oppressing people just for the fun of it, there’s also a neat twist with the blind old coot.
Danny Glover is probably the best thing about the film, he’s got just the right ability to seem like a nice and likable guy, but still having a certain gruffness to his character. It’s clear that Glover’s character has seen a lot over the course of his career as a bar owner and blues enthusiast. He’s a character that clearly has a past and the audience easily gets the gist of it without the movie explicitly showing or describing much of it.
In final analysis, Honeydripper is just a very average and fairly forgettable film. It has a neat atmosphere, the story works well enough, but it’s just a very small trifle of a film. Had I seen it in theaters I would have felt vaguely ripped off, and I’m not sure I’d even recommend it as a DVD rental. But, if you see it on cable or something like that I do think it’s worth giving a shot.
**1/2 out of four