Things aren't going so well at the Honeydripper Lounge, a black-owned blues hall in the backwater Alabama town of Harmony. The rent's overdue; the electricity's on the fritz; and the joint across the road is packing in the crowds with a jukebox. Just a couple of old-timers and drunks-on-credit sit in the Honeydripper, listening to an elderly woman sing dusty old blues.
But it's 1950 and profound change, a transcendent rebirth and salvation is about come to the Honeydripper -- and to the world. In fact, he's steppin' off the train just now -- a young man with an electric guitar and a new hybrid sound percolating in his brain.
Honeydripper is the 16th feature from (mostly) indie writer-director John Sayles, and it's clearly a personal outing. Not in the emotional sense -- in fact, the amiable ensemble dramedy doesn't do much probing of the heart or soul -- but from the dream-project backfiles of a man deeply enamored of American music and its mid-century metamorphosis into rock 'n' roll.
But before the New Testament is amped, then blasted, we brush up on sleepy Harmony. There's the Honeydripper's good-hearted proprietor, Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis (Danny Glover), a former blues pianist who may or may not have killed a man; his sidekick, Maceo (Charles S. Dutton); and his sweet step-daughter, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta ), who helps out.
Tyrone's wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), cleans houses and considers the Lord, while the town's middle-aged man-eater, Nadine (Davenia McFadden), feasts her eyes on Maceo's robust form. Keb' Mo' plays an all-knowing blind street-corner bluesman ("I got the second guitar ever made; the devil got the first," he deadpans), who functions as a Greek chorus-cum-cautioning angel. And no Jim Crow-era story would be complete without a bloated, mean-eyed, interfering lawman: Stacy Keach fills out Sheriff Pugh's uniform.
The musical messiah appears in the form of Sonny, the youth with a knack for electronics who has built his own guitar and amplifier, and has been traveling around soaking up jump-blues in such fertile burgs as Memphis and New Orleans. Sonny is portrayed ably by Gary Clark Jr., a hot newcomer on the Austin musical circuit.
Though Honeydripper is hardly the most provocative work of Sayles' career, its nostalgic heart is in the right place. It's an enjoyable film, even if it often has the feel of a prestige TV movie. (This is a film about juke joints you could take your grandma to.) And while acknowledging the trials of being poor and black in the South, Honeydripper doesn't linger, choosing instead to highlight the upbeat: the strong sense of community; the sweet release of music; and the more promising futures awaiting Sonny and China Doll.
Much of the dialogue serves to advance the relatively simple plot. I wish there were more languid scenes that let the actors stretch out, such as when Dutton and Glover each tell a story. Dutton's is comic, involving Nadine's tempestuous love life, while Glover's speaks to the film's theme of musical cross-fertilization. In that scene, the dispirited ivory-tickler wistfully reflects on a past moment he wishes he could have seen -- when a musically adept house slave might have snagged the opportunity to apply his own spirited technique on the master's genteel piano.
Of course, there is no one moment in history when African rhythms met the keyboard, when rock 'n' roll was born, or even when the electric guitar achieved primacy, Sonny's floor-shaking debut notwithstanding. Free-thinking musicianship, experimentation and genre-jumping were happening over time in California honkytonks, swing joints in Texas and in Alabama jukes.
But as hokey as Honeydripper's epiphany-of-the-axe scene is, it is rooted in reality. Somewhere, somehow, 50 or so years ago, audiences, especially teens, caught a new sound – and it was, in a word, electrifying.
Starts Fri., Feb. 1. Harris