Indie maestro John Sayles has always loved to explore American subcultures and in this, his 16th film as writer/director, he turns his flashlight on popular music. Specifically, Honeydripper charts the key turning-point when the guitar, that hitherto shy and soft-spoken instrument, plugged itself into the mains and grabbed the limelight.
Danny Glover plays Tyrone Purvis, proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge situated in the small Alabama township of Harmony. Business ain’t good. It’s 1950 and the old-style blues singing purveyed at the Honeydripper is going out of style; the kids prefer the nearby juke-joint. In a desperate bid to save the Lounge, Tyrone books a famous New Orleans musician, Guitar Sam. But when Sam fails to show, Tyrone recalls a young guy called Sonny Blake who recently drifted through, toting a strange newfangled device he calls an electric guitar. Maybe he can stand in? Only one problem – Sam’s been arrested for vagrancy by the corrupt sheriff...
One of the joys of Sayles’ films has always been the relaxed ensemble playing he manages to draw from his actors, and Honeydripper is no exception. His predominantly black cast interact with a sense of enjoyment, and even the sheriff (Stacy Keach) fits in perfectly – not the usual blustering monster, but a man quietly amused by his own lazy venality. Racism, in this pre- Civil Rights era in the South, is like the weather – people might not necessarily like it, but they just put up with it as a fact of life.
Sayles likes to map out whole communities, and now and then the narrative here meanders a little too far off the main track. But the writer/ director’s appreciation of his characters and knack for naturalistic dialogue are enough to hold our interest even through the more discursive scenes. And then – of course – there’s the music. All the strands that fed into rock ’n’ roll – R&B, blues, jazz, gospel and country – run through the action, finally coming together in the jam session that forms the film’s triumphant, unfettered climax.