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HONEYDRIPPER(director/writer: John Sayles; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: John Sayles; music: Mason Daring; cast: Danny Glover (Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis), Charles S. Dutton (Maceo), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Delilah), Mary Steenburgen (Amanda Winship), Stacy Keach (Sheriff Pugh), Vondie Curtis Hall (Slick, lover of Bertha), Sean Patrick Thomas (Dex), Keb’ Mo’ (Possum, mysterious blind Dobro player), Kel Mitchell (Junebug), Gary Clark Jr. (Sonny Blake), Mabel John (Bertha Mae), Yaya DaCosta (China Doll), Davenia McFadden (Nadine), James Crittenden (Toussaint), Albert Hall (Reverend Cutlip), Daryl Edwards (Shack Thomas), Danny Vinson (Judge Gatlin); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Maggie Renzi; Emerging Pictures; 2007)
“It’s a leisurely paced period musical drama set in the Jim Crow south of the 1950s that’s steeped in the black southern mores … .”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 16th film of John Sayles (“City of Hope”/”Passion Fish”/”Lone Star”) might be as old-fashioned as a juke box but is still one of his more enjoyable films, as it shows through the music that the times are changing. It’s a leisurely paced period musical drama set in the Jim Crow south of the 1950s that’s steeped in the black southern mores and the steamy sounds of gospel, blues and at the onset of the electrical guitar sound of rock ‘n’ roll (watch out, Chuck Berry is around the corner!). The mostly African-American cast, most who are musicians, dish out a soulful melody in tune to that shameful period in American history where blacks were not only segregated, harassed by the local sheriffs and kept down in the cotton fields, but suffered from black on black violence.

In 1950, in the outskirts of the sleepy backwater town of Harmony, Alabama, world-weary proprietor Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis (Danny Glover) of a failing juke joint called the Honeydripper Lounge has gambled with the club’s future by firing the talented elderly blues singer (Mabel John) who can’t bring in the business because her tunes are too mournful and he replaces her with the flashy Guitar Sam, a New Orleans headliner and crowd favorite, who is passing by on train for a Saturday night only show. The rival black juke joint has taken away Tyrone’s business by playing the rock guitar sound that the folks like dancing to, and in a last-ditch effort to keep his beloved joint open Tyrone has decided to also go to guitar music. Tyrone has stolen the liquor from his rival club because he didn’t have enough money to pay his own distributor and his gangster black landlord wants the back rent by this weekend or threatens to shut him down. If that weren’t enough of a headache, the corrupt peckerwood sheriff (Stacy Keach) has sentenced to cotton picking duty a shy young dreamy-eyed electric guitar playing drifter, Sonny Blake (Gary Clark Jr, real-life guitarist), who just arrived by freight train, riding the boxcars, and has been asked to pose by Tyrone in a desperate move as Guitar Sam when the star is a no-show. The sheriff will release Sonny only if paid fifty dollars by the end of the weekend and if payment is not received he gets a piece of the club.

Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) is Tyrone’s churchgoing wife, a reformed lounge singer who earns more money than hubby by cleaning for the rich white lady, Miss Amanda (Mary Steenburgen), but who also helps out around the lounge by cooking fried chicken. Tyrone, who stopped playing the boogie piano on the big-time black club circuit because he killed a man in a bar brawl, is the step-father to Delilah’s sweet 17-year-old daughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta). She has taken a shine to Sonny, and seems to be the only one to believe he can really play his homemade instrument. Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) is Tyrone’s loyal bartender, best friend, and right-hand man, who is being comically pursued with sexual innuendos by the oversexed big mama seamstress Nadine (Davenia McFadden). There’s also a mysterious know-it-all stranger in town, a blind blues singer (Keb’ Mo’) who begs for coin in the white part of town and who acts in an unconvincing way as the film’s deus ex machina–popping up throughout and moving the story along as a fable, but he’s so clumsily presented that though his performance can’t be faulted his part can be for never adding anything to the story and for killing the film’s rhythm by this subplot diversion that never amounts to anything.

Though the fable is creaky, riddled with stereotyped characters, clichéd, has some unreal situations, and that the feelgood outcome is predictable, the colorful and mostly sympathetic characters (well-presented by the natural acting of the ensemble cast, especially by the passionate and dignified performance by Glover) and the detailed recreation of the segregated atmosphere (at least from the standpoint of the locale and the period), give the well-intentioned but flawed liberal film an overall satisfying look of authenticity. It shows in a pleasing way how the ordinary blacks of that day faced their everyday racism and poverty and it also shows how music, whether in the church or the lounge, was one vehicle that brought joy and salvation to even the most downtrodden black.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”