EmptyToronto International Film Festival
TORONTO -- Novelist, short story writer and longtime indie filmmaker John Sayles is an artist who never repeats himself. As a screenwriter and then a filmmaker with 16 features under his belt, Sayles has switched geography, language, time periods, genres and cultures in his restless urge to tells stories about all sorts of people, climes and ethnicities. In "Honeydripper," his keen interest has shifted to the evolution of 1950s rock music and the inestimable contribution by African-Americans. His heart -- and musical soul -- is in the right place, but the film makes you at times uncomfortable with black and Southern stereotypes that may hinder some from fully enjoying an otherwise benign and cheerful tall tale of the Saturday night when rock came to rural Alabama.
Sayles has paid far too many dues as a man who can write smoothly and in depth about many regions of America for a critical response to attack him over this. But the images and caricatures of a blind guitar picker, redneck sheriff, revival meetings, cotton-picking, fights in juke joints and the like have all been evoked in so many movies of much less integrity that this is a thing one must get past before surrendering to his amusing backwater fable.
A distributor can anticipate Sayles' admirers to turn out, but "Honeydripper" may crossover into both rock and blues fans and an urban crowd. It does need careful marketing though.
In 1950 Harmony, Alabama, Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover) can barely keep the doors to his Honeydripper tavern open as his blues singer (recording artist Dr. Mable John) can't compete with the juke box at a rival joint. Worse, Tyrone owes the liquor man and his landlord. For one make-or-break Saturday night, he hires a Louisiana hot-licker named Guitar Sam to pack 'em in and save his club.
Only when the train arrives, there's no Sam. Of course, the solution to Tyrone's dilemma got off a previous train, a guitar-totting kid named Sonny (Austin guitar and blues sensation Gary Clark, Jr.). Unfortunately, the sheriff (Stacy Keach, underplaying the obvious as much as he can) has already arrested Sonny for "vagrancy," thus making him available to pick a white judge's cotton.
So Tyrone makes a deal with the sheriff, illegally purloins his rival's whisky, fends off the landlord's henchman, recruits local musical talent and puts his pal (Charles S. Dutton) up to a scheme to cut the club's electricity and abscond with the cash box moments after Sonny hits the stage. But viewers have a pretty good idea that last premeditated crime may be unnecessary.
Tyrone's own family is divided: His doubtful wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) is thinking about trying out religion rather than rely on the tavern while his wannabe beautician stepdaughter (Yaya DaCosta) would like nothing more than to make Sonny ready for his gig.
So that's "Honeydripper," a predictable tale featuring typical characters. You do wish Sayles had extended the concluding concert to make getting to that point even more worthwhile for viewers.
The film does feature a host of interesting characters and, as always with Sayles, the dialogue has more than a few zingers. The well-cast actors are all solid, more than solid even, but as the director-editor Sayles lets the pace slacken too often.
"Honeydripper" represents a good outing by Sayles but far from his best.
Writer/director/editor: John Sayles
Producer: Maggie Renzi
Director of photography: Dick Pope
Production designer: Toby Corbett
Costume designer: Hope Hanafin
Music: Mason Daring.
Tyrone: Danny Glover
Delilah: Lisa Gay Hamilton
China Doll: Yaya DaCosta
Maceo: Charles S. Dutton
Slick: Vondie Curtis Hall
Sonny Blake: Gary Clark, Jr.
Berta Mae: Dr. Mable John
Sheriff Pugh: Stacy Keach
Amanda: Mary Steenburgen
Running time -- 124 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13