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.