DVD of the Week – Review of Honeydripper (2007)

by HELEN GEIB

The movies are a strange and sometimes inexplicable business. Case in point: the commercial failure of Honeydripper. Honeydripper is the newest film by writer-director John Sayles, one of America’s foremost independent filmmakers. It is a very good movie. It is also by all outward measures Sayles’ most commercial film (not excepting the studio made Eight Men Out, handicapped by a downbeat story), yet it only received what I will charitably describe as a token theatrical release. It warrants a large and enthusiastic audience, and I hope it will find it on DVD.

Set in 1950 Alabama, the story revolves around “Pine Top” Purvis’ (Danny Glover) determined efforts to resuscitate the flagging fortunes of his Honeydripper Lounge. Necessity is the mother of invention, and invention in this case involves a ruse to pass off an itinerant young man as a famed New Orleans blues guitarist, in town for a special one-night show. The young man (Gary Clark Jr., pictured above) proves to have unsuspected musical talents and his act raises the roof, turns the financial tide, and augurs the birth of a new kind of popular music.

Honeydripper is replete with crowd-pleasing elements. Glover heads one of Sayles’ typically excellent ensemble casts, including among its more familiar members Charles Dutton, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Stacy Keach, Mary Steenburgen, and Keb’ Mo’. There is much wonderful music, a well-judged mix of comedy and drama, a fine evocation of the period and milieu, and a happy ending. While it doesn’t shy away from showing the racism, poverty, and small-mindedness that characterize the time and place, Honeydripper is defined by a warm and sympathetic depiction of its characters.

When Geoff picked Honeydripper as one of the ten best films of 2007, he called out the film’s achievement in creating a world and characters that seem to exist outside the frame. They lived before the film began, they will continue to live after it’s over, and it is the audience’s good fortune to spend a couple of hours eavesdropping on their lives.

Other new releases this week: 10,000 B.C., Charlie Bartlett, Definitely, Maybe, In Bruges, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, Persepolis, The Spiderwick Chronicles

4 responses to “DVD of the Week – Review of Honeydripper (2007)

  1. I would just like to point out that “Honeydripper” received more than a token release. It has played hundreds of theaters across the country, and had more of a push than most low budget indie films. The fact that box office was terrible is less an indication of the effort behind it, than an indication of how difficult it is to cut through the clutter of major studio advertising budgets these days. We appreciate your support for the film, and wish more journalists had stepped forward during its theatrical release.

    –Ira Deutchman, Emerging Pictures

  2. I never heard about this film, so I can second Ira – I wish more journalists had supported this movie, so that we could have done so as well. I’ll check it out as soon as I can.

  3. I did know about this movie and hoped to see it in a theater, but it did not play Indianapolis. Lots of indie or foreign films don’t, sadly, but when a movie doesn’t play in a metro area of more than a million I think we can call it a very limited if not token release. It’s a comment on the miserable state of the business when good films can’t get booked in a major city. It looks to me like the Landmark chain may be part of the problem. This self-styled art movie chain currently has four of its six screens showing multiplex movies. It won’t schedule movies shown in their NY/LA/Chicago theaters so there’s no opportunity to demonstrate that there’s an interested audience here or any attempt to cultivate one. And the independent art house is refused bookings because Landmark is here. I don’t know if it’s a distribution rights issue or a case of distributor wishful thinking that the big chain will squeeze them in. Whatever the explanation, it’s terribly frustrating for movie fans in most of the country.

  4. Comparisons are inevitable when a director has such a strong body of work, and while Honeydripper can’t equal the best Sayles has to offer (Limbo or Lone Star) it’s still a fine film, the kind of movie you just sink into.

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