Monday, September 16, 2013

Honeydripper

I just adore how a John Sayles film plays. Flows naturally. Unfolds perhaps in a novelistic fashion yet feels real.  Detractors may say it meanders, has no shape. People get so fidgety when their entertainment doesn't follow a predictable path or connect the dots.  Travel the well worn linear. Then there are those film snobs who dismiss things that don't have some deeper meaning, are "about something". Honestly, I'm sick to death of those who are constantly probing for hidden themes, or allegories. The layers are in fact often there, whether the artist intended it or not. That's an entire discussion of its own. Sayles makes movies about real people and shoots them in real locations. Down home character studies. Sometimes home grown Americana, other times in places like Ireland or Mexico. And he makes them cinematic, without self consciousness.

2007's HONEYDRIPPER fits nicely among the writer/director's works. Segregated Alabama in the 1950s is the setting. Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover), a former piano prodigy, runs a failing blues club, populated on a typical evening by a handful of local drunks and a soulful female crooner living out her final days.  Across the way is a competitor, a joint that is jumping, seducing those in the town who have a dollar in their pocket, including several weekend pass soldiers. One day, a young drifter named Sonny Blake (Gary Clark, Jr.) happens into Purvis' club. He carries a homemade guitar, a plank of wood that he wound and fretted himself. He asks for a job, but Pine Top already has a gig booked, a nationally known plucker who'll promise Standing Room Only. A do-or-die night that he hopes will turn things around.      

HONEYDRIPPER introduces a gallery of other characters, another fine cast assembled by Sayles. Pine Top's wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), is a housekeeper for a prominent local couple (the matriarch played by Mary Steenburgen).  She attends revival tent meetings on the outskirts of town, and becomes conflicted as the words of the preacher seem to uncomfortably describe her husband's sinful life to a T. China Doll (Yaya DeCosta) is the Purvis' stunning teenage daughter, who takes a shine to Sonny. Her character is actually given some depth and backstory. There's the local redneck sheriff - not necessarily the one note racist he appears to be- named Pugh (Stacey Keach). He's vaguely menacing and one day picks up Sonny merely for being unemployed and puts him on his prisoner work detail. Charles Dutton plays Pine Top's friend, Maceo.  Even Keb Mo' is on hand.

There are smatterings of music throughout, and of course during the finale. I won't divulge what happens, but it shouldn't be too difficult to guess.  Some solid playing in there, but I wanted more! Maybe I was expecting wall to wall tunes. That would be a small beef I have with HONEYDRIPPER, and yes I realize I could buy the soundtrack.

And the movie is so well textured, so vivid and well acted, that periodic lapses in pace and a slight overlength are easily forgiven. Much care was taken with this production, and Sayles' refusal to get tangled in tired plotting, pretentious attempts at subtext, or to contrive big emotions are what separates this from other films that tackle race relations in the mid 20th century - Oscar bait like THE HELP or the current LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER.

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