Unlike most movies made by the Hollywood studios he eschews, the films of indie-icon writer-director John Sayles aren't geared around the individual exploits of name actors. Rather, in Sayles' movies, the protagonist is more likely to be a community than a person.
This rare perspective is a welcome one, but Sayles' left-correct worldview sometimes suffers in translation to the screen. Well-meaning though they are, Sayles movies can be stilted, wooden, uncinematic — like the wonkish sobriety of a Clinton rally when you're hungry for Obama.
In Sayles' new film, Honeydripper, the filmmaker's best and worst tendencies battle to a draw. The film, which opened the Indie Memphis Film Festival last fall and which brought Sayles to town earlier this month for a promotional appearance during International Blues Challenge weekend, is a primer on blues culture that seems designed for a "blues in the schools" middle-school program, something underscored by a climactic rendition of "Good Rockin' Tonight" where the leeringly carnal standard is rendered utterly sexless. Here, the widespread familiarity of the material (as compared to that of films such as Lone Star and Matewan) and Sayles' lack of any original take on it is borderline deadly.
The film is set in Harmony, Alabama, just before the Korean War. Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis (Danny Glover) is a blues pianist and proprietor of a juke joint called the Honeydripper. Under fierce financial strain and in danger of losing his club, he sets aside his principled dislike of guitar players to book the New Orleans radio star "Guitar Sam" for a one-night-only performance in hopes of luring all the "cotton pickers and soldier boys" in the area.
This familiar narrative provides a reliable foundation on which Sayles erects a film about the contours of black life in the rural '50s South and about the evolution of rhythm and blues. But Sayles sabotages his film by ham-fistedly cramming in every blues-culture reference he can remember — there are tent revivals, blind bluesmen, discussions of the rhythm of cotton picking, talk of hot grits as deadly weapon, inmates breaking into a mournful singalong of "Midnight Special." It's like the Coen brothers gone earnest — no winks or nudges. "Where do people go for music around here," a young drifter asks. "There are a couple of spots outside of town, at the crossroads," a local responds.
Too much of the dialogue is tin-eared and telegraphed, a sop to contemporary ideas about blues culture, and this drags down much that is good about the film: a relaxed pace and atmosphere that, at times, has a real feel for friendship, marriage, and community interaction; legitimate musicological points about the transition from piano- to guitar-based R&B; a deeply pleasurable minor turn by Stax vet Mabel John as an aging '30s-style blues matriarch; the brave refusal to include a single white character positioned as a comfortable audience stand-in.
Editor's note: Honeydripper was scheduled to open Friday, February 22nd, but the date was pushed back to February 29th just prior to our deadlines.
Opening Friday, February 29th