By Connie Ogle
John Sayles’ latest film resembles a more solid, fleshed-out version of the Irish indie Once: It’s a musical but only in the sense that it’s a story about people whose passions are fueled and guided by melody. Instead of some slight, shy couple playing out a near-romance in Dublin, Sayles’ people crash headlong into their lives in the rural South, scraping for survival, all to a blistering soundtrack of rhythm and blues.
Set in 1950s Alabama in a town called Harmony, Honeydripper is a long, slow drink of a movie about piano man Tyrone ”Pinetop” Purvis (a fantastic Danny Glover, doing his best work in years) trying to save his rundown nightclub, which is as empty as a whiskey bottle at the end of a Saturday night. Purvis refuses to play upbeat jukebox music in his place — shunning guitar players and booking a good old-fashioned blues singer (recording artist Dr. Mable John) for his virtually empty room. The customers flock to the competition across the way, where they can dance away a week of drudgery in the cotton fields or at the nearby military base.
But times have grown tougher, and bills are unpaid, so Purvis decides to bring in New Orleans sensation Guitar Sam. Meanwhile, meandering into Harmony the way Sayles’ characters so often do, is Sonny (blues sensation Gary Clark Jr.), a young guitar picker in search of work. Discord, however, is in Sonny’s future: An unfortunate encounter with the bullying, racist sheriff (Stacy Keach) lands him in the broiling sun amid scraggly rows of cotton, paying off a debt to society he never actually incurred.
Honeydripper has all the reliable components of Sayles’ films: a strong social conscience; well-drawn characters whose lives overlap convincingly; a languid pace that allows for the honest unfolding of their foibles and fears; a vivid evocation of a place and time. Sayles expands the basic plot with squabbles among the field hands and a deeper tempest brewing in the soul of Purvis’ wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who wants badly to be saved at a tent revival but would have to refute her church-shunning husband to do so.
The soundtrack shifts confidently from blues to gospel to the baby steps of rock ‘n’ roll, and Sayles and longtime partner and producer Maggie Renzi steep the film in colorful blues mythology. Purvis’ club lies at a crossroads, of course, and rumors of a long-ago murder haunt the past, just like they do in a good blues tune. A roaming archetype (singer-songwriter Keb’ Mo’) — who appears only to musicians like Sonny and Purvis — acts as a one-man Greek chorus in examining the men’s inner and outer turmoil.
But such magic also shares the stage with a poetic realism that underscores Sayles’ skill as a screenwriter. In one quiet scene, Purvis muses about the first black American to play a piano, a musician who surely watched his master pound out minuets and knew in his soul that he could do better.
”Everything got a rhythm, even pulling cotton off the plant,” a field hand offers helpfully. Like his eager young bluesman when he finally hits the stage, Sayles hits exactly the right notes.