Even at their most uneven, the films of iconoclastically independent writer-director John Sayles are always at least interesting, and a few are outstanding. “Honeydripper” falls into the latter category. It’s his best since “Lone Star” (1996), and though very different in tone from that picture, they share a marvelous sense of time and place.
The locale this time around is a small southern town at the beginning of the 1950’s. One-time honky-tonk piano player Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Danny Glover) is the proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge, a clapboard roadhouse on the poor (i.e., black) side of tracks where old-time blues singer Bertha Mae (Mable John) hasn’t been able to draw in the crowds that have drifted away to a rival club with a jukebox. So Purvis decides to book a new attraction, a big-city celebrity named Guitar Sam with a new sound, and use the expected bonanza to pay off the creditors and keep racist local sheriff Pugh (Stacy Keach) off his back.
There’s a problem, of course—he doesn’t have the money to stock the place with booze. So he cons the liquor delivery man out of bottles intended for his rival’s shelves, and makes use of the family savings, putting stress on his marriage to Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who’s toying with the idea of leaving him and committing herself to a revival preacher, as well as his relationship with his older-than-her-years daughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta).
An even bigger problem arises when Guitar Sam fails to show up for the gig, leading Purvis to spring traveling guitar-strummer Sonny Blake (Gary Clark, Jr.) from the cotton-picking crew to which he’s been assigned as a vagrant by Pugh so the young man can pose as the star. As he’s prepped for the performance, of course, Blake hits it off with China Doll, and Delilah makes her choice between conversion and devotion to her less-than-religious husband. And—to the surprise of Purvis and his doubtful assistant Maceo (Charles S. Dutton)—Sonny, playing a homemade electric guitar of a kind none of the locals had seen before, turns out to be a smash.
“Honeydripper” has socio-political subtext about the waning days of the segregated south, and cultural subtext about the evolution of musical styles there. But basically it’s a fable of family and community, in which a blind street player (Kab’ Mo’) who’s apparently visible only to Purvis periodically appears to offer pithy observations and bits of advice, like a passing guardian angel who departs for another location when his work is done. The fairy-tale atmosphere is nicely caught by the cast; all the performers—Glover, Dutton, Hamilton, DaCosta, Clark and John—as well as Vondie Curtis Hall as Bertha Mae’s solicitous husband and Sayles himself in a cameo as a liquor deliveryman—catch the spirit of magical realism, of grittiness to which a touch of the fantastic has been added. Even Keach’s gruff sheriff, as lacking in soul as he might be, seems eventually to fit in.
Like all of Sayles’ personal films, “Honeydripper” makes the most of a modest budget under the skilled hand of producer Maggie Renzi, with Dick Pope’s cinematography nicely setting off the period details of Toby Corbett’s production design, Eloise Stammerjohn’s art direction, Alice Baker’s sets and Hope Hanafin’s costumes. Naturally the music is especially important, and both Mason Daring’s original score and the mixture of standards of varying vintage put together by Tim Bernett add significantly to the effect.
The title of “Honeydripper” seems just right: Sayles’ picture is sweet, but it doles out the syrup gingerly, generating a quietly escalating evocative mood that warms the heart gradually rather than exploding all at once. The cumulative effect is very tasty indeed.