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Honeydripper   B+

Emerging Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: John Sayles
Writer: John Sayles
Cast: Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yaya DaCosta, Charles S. Dutton, Vondie Curtis Hall, Gary Clark Jr., Dr. Mable John, Stacy Keach.

Review by Rob Vaux

Welcome back, John Sayles. We've missed you! Your output of late has left something to be desired, but Honeydripper returns you to your full-fledged glory: presenting a highly tuned ensemble cast creating a unique community where social issues and the human condition filter elegantly through the immediacy of well-honed drama. Honeydripper becomes all the more impressive because we've seen its subject matter a number of times before. But thanks to Sayles, it's never appeared to us like this.

The time is 1950. The place is Alabama, in the depths of cotton country. A whiff of magical realism hangs in the air, with chance meetings and mysterious blues musicians who may be far more than they seem. But no fairy dust can erase the harsh legacy of the segregated South, where a black man best remove his hat for the sheriff if he knows what's good for him. Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), owner of a backwoods gin shack called the Honeydripper Lounge, knows all about life's pain. His rival across the way just installed a jukebox, which is kicking his tired old blues acts in the shorts. He owes a great deal of money to some very bad people, and even with harvest season underway, no one wants to spend a dime in his place. Possible salvation arrives in the form of Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) a rail-riding musician desperate for work. Arrested for vagrancy and sent to the workhouse, he bears enough of a resemblance to the famous Guitar Sam -- whom Tyrone has tried to recruit for a make-or-break performance -- to get the bar owner to take a chance on him. But even if Tyrone can spring the lad, keep his creditors from breaking his thumbs, and somehow entice enough customers into his place to save his business, he's still in for a shock when he hears the kind of music Sonny intends to play.

Like most of Sayles' films, Honeydripper teases out these particulars through slow, gradual emersion in the characters. We learn their pasts and wonder about their futures as they discuss pain, hope, and the bewilderment of changing times. Sayles expands the notion of positive transition through every aspect of his chosen period: the first hints of civil rights, the gradual withering of the agrarian South, popular music standing on the cusp of a revolution. The Honeydripper matters to Tyrone largely because it's his: he's a black man who owns his own business in a place where poverty reigns supreme and sanctioned lynchings are still the norm. That makes the bar worth fighting for in ways that have nothing to do with money, transforming his efforts into a crucible for a new era.

Another director would easily ruin it all by pounding us with flaccid imagery and histrionic speeches. But Sayles has much defter touch which keeps things subtle and delicate. The points arrive obliquely, through marvelous dialogue reflecting the immediacy of the moment -- of issues cemented in reality rather than the screenwriter's bleeding heart. I don't believe anyone in Honeydripper ever raises their voice. They simply reflect the truth of their time as all of us do: by living through it, a fact which Sayles conveys from the opening credits on.

And then there is the sound. Dozens of movies have covered this particular era, the magic of the blues, and the way it strengthened and exemplified the best parts of our collective culture. Honeydripper doesn't add anything new to the equation, and yet its passion and joy still come second to none. The climactic concert marks a standout moment in a movie year bristling with marvelous music, and Glover has a monologue about the first black man ever to play a piano that approaches perfection. Not all of the movie can match such high points -- Sayles always takes his time and parts of Honeydripper segue from a leisurely pace to a flat-out stall. But when the energy rises, the film simply soars, and any time Sayles clicks with his material this succinctly, the results are thrilling. The film got lost a bit in the December shuffle, as more prominent Oscar contenders pushed it out of the limelight. The doldrums of January make a great time to discover it and help put a little boogie in your new year step.

Review published 01.14.2008.

Also read: Q&A with Danny Glover.

Also read: Q&A with John Sayles & Maggie Renzi.

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