One of the true independents in moviemaking, writer-director John Sayles makes films unencumbered by commercial dictates. In his best efforts -- 1987's Matewan, 1991's City of Hope, 1998's Lone Star -- he delivers dense, character-driven stories that unfurl at a leisurely pace. At his worst, he can be didactic and plodding. Honeydripper falls short of Sayles' most stellar efforts, but it is nevertheless one of his most engaging, a film that celebrates the transformative power of music.
Set in 1950 Alabama, the picture revolves around Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis (Danny Glover), the proprietor of a ramshackle juke joint called the Honeydripper. The place has fallen on hard times. Most of its clientele have moved to the more lively music club down the road. Tyrone owes money to his Arkansas landlord and must fend off the ominous lurking around of the beady-eyed sheriff (Stacy Keach).
Strapped for cash, Tyrone has pinned his hopes on one last-ditch effort, having made a deal for a minor star to play the Honeydripper on Saturday night. The performer, Guitar Sam, has enjoyed moderate success with a hit in New Orleans, but Tyrone doesn't even know wit that Sam will show up -- much less what he even looks like.
While Tyrone and his trusted sideman (Charles S. Dutton) sweat over whether Guitar Sam will step off the next train into town, a young, guitar-toting vagabond named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) arrives via a boxcar. He is looking for work and checks the Honeydripper. Tyrone feeds the stranger before sending him on his way, but not before romantic sparks fly between Sonny and Tyrone's daughter, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta).
Sayles lets his tale unfold at a relaxed pace. The patience of audiences is rewarded, however, as Honeydripper delivers a feast of interesting, likeable and believable characters who mainly resist caricature (Keach's mean ol' sheriff being a notable exception). The various storylines intersect in an absorbing climax.
For this low-key, character-driven motion picture, Sayles has assembled some bang-up actors. Glover's one-note dourness can be grating -- with apologies to the late Dorothy Parker, one could say the actor runs the gamut of emotions from A to B -- but he has a terrific supporting cast. Particular standouts are Dutton as Tyrone's gruff assistant; Lisa Gay Hamilton as Tyrone's wife, Delilah; and blues star Keb' Mo' as a blind musician who serves as a sort of Greek chorus fill-in, periodically popping up to make mysterious pronouncements. Mary Steenburgen has an effective cameo as a society woman who carries the aura of heartbreak.
Like a good novel, Honeydripper encompasses many ideas and themes. It is a snapshot of a not-so-long-ago period in American history, a time when segregation was a fact of everyday life. It is a meditation on the hold of tradition in the face of change. Most of all, this film, with its wistful look at the origins of rock 'n' roll, is about the power and communal experience of music.
The screener copy provided does not represent final product, so it's impossible to make a fair assessment. That said, the DVD supplied to me boasted excellent quality, with cinematographer Dick Pope blanketing the rustic images in (appropriately enough) a honey-colored glow.
Again, a screener copy renders it impossible to judge the audio quality. The film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, which was adequate but unremarkable in the screener copy. There are a few inconsistencies in volume, but nothing too distracting.
Included are informative interviews with John Sayles (6:21), Danny Glover (4 minutes), Charles S. Dutton (4:45) and longtime Sayles producer Maggie Renzi (3:56). Oddly, there is not a "play all" function. Also worthwhile is a 26-minute, 23-second Behind the Scenes featurette with plenty of meaty interviews and making-of footage.
UPDATE: It should be noted that the final product DVD includes a director's commentary. It was absent, however, from the screener provided for review.
In Honeydripper, writer-director John Sayles has a fondness for his characters that is certain to rub off on viewers. Buoyed by strong writing and acting, the movie deserves an audience that eluded it in theaters.