What a great name for a blues movie! 'Honeydripper' just oozes innuendo in the best way. Mmm-hmmm. If Big Bill Broonzy didn't come up with it, well, he should have.
The year is 1950 and Tyrone (Danny Glover) is the proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge, a gin mill on the outskirts of Harmony, a rural Alabama cotton town. Business is bad. The juke joint next door is fit to burst but Tyrone prefers Bertha Mae's old time moanin' blues ' even if no one else does. Even so, the wolf is at the door and he knows it. If the landlord doesn't get his money on Monday, the Honeydripper will be sold out from under him.
That's why he's swallowed his pride and booked Guitar Sam for Saturday night. Tyrone doesn't like guitars and he's not much for electricity either, but Guitar Sam is the kind of sensation who could pull in the crowds for miles around. All he has to do is keep his creditors at bay for another couple of days'
The latest from veteran independent filmmaker John Sayles is typical of his strengths and weaknesses.
Strengths: adventurous material; his interest in history, other races and cultures; the idea that lives connect and intersect with each other, and that you can't tell one man's story without touching on a dozen more; his steadfast faith in literate, crafted dialogue.
Weaknesses: sluggish pacing and pedestrian visuals; his failure to challenge liberal stereotypes; his steadfast faith in literate, crafted dialogue.
Sayles wrote, directed and edited Honeydripper, and at 123 minutes it's got ample, leisurely pleasures. But it would have been a better movie 25 minutes shorter.
Take the first couple of scenes: Bertha Mae sings to an empty room, while Tyrone shoots the shit with her man/agent, Slick (Vondie Curtis Hall). Sayles has the club owner explain that times are hard and Bertha Mae isn't bringing in the punters anymore at least three times, and then two or three more in the next scene. In fact, Tyrone doesn't have to say a word: we have eyes; we can see the Honeydripper is out of favour.
The same pedantic need to underline every point also undermines the main narrative. An itinerant guitar player gets off the train at Harmony in the first five minutes of the picture, and you can probably guess already where he's going to end up, but it's an hour and a half or more before Tyrone catches on.
As for the character of the spooky blind seer who strums away quietly in the corner ' give us a break! This is the kind of indulgent conceit a strong producer would knock on the head at the script stage, but Sayles and his wife Maggie Renzi are their own producers so that's not going to happen. Too much independence isn't always to the good.
On the other hand, it's obvious why first-rate actors like Glover, Dutton, and Stacy Keach (as the town's bigoted sheriff) sign on for Sayles' films. He gives every character a chance to explain him or herself, a moral dilemma to wrestle with, and even a shot at redemption.
In perhaps the most interesting subplot, Tyrone's wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) has to choose between religion and what the Evangelicals insist will be damnation ' that is, sticking by her husband and the Honeydripper. It's the one plot strand that doesn't seem to be a foregone conclusion.
Even if this is far from Sayles' best (check out Matewan, Lone Star or Passion Fish), it must be said it's mostly a pleasure just to soak up the Deep South atmosphere, enjoy the acting, and of course listen to the music, of which there's quite a bit.
Newcomer Gary Clark delivers the goods as the electrifyin' guitar player, Sonny, a kind of T-Bone Walker figure. Come the big finale, you really can catch the excitement this sound must have generated in folks who had never heard an amplifier before. Just 15 years later Jimi Hendrix would blow the whole thing wide open.
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