Lisa Gay Hamilton
John Sayles is something of an auteur, making unusual and affecting politically-conscious films. Honeydripper fits this bill, but sadly falls drastically short of the bar which he himself set so high. Although it has plenty to make it shine, a series of missteps slow it down until it trudges rather than soars.
Set in Harmony, Alabama, in the fifties, Honeydripper is the story of Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), the proprietor of a ramshackle roadhouse thats deep in debt. After losing all its habitus to Toussaint a club with a jumping juke box Tyrone decides to make one final attempt to save his lounge. He blows his remaining pennies on Guitar Sam a radio legend who is guaranteed to draw a crowd.
Meanwhile across town, a breeze blows in Sonny Blake (Gary Clark), an itinerant musician with a home-made new-fangled electric gee-tar in hand. Looking for work, he comes across the Honeydripper but is turned away by Purvis. Its not long before he is arrested by the local white Sheriff (Stacey Keach) and sent to work on a cotton farm. Luckily for Sonny, Purviss stepdaughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta) has taken a shine to him and when Guitar Sam doesnt show, Sonny steps in and gives the inhabitants of Harmony a show that rocks their socks off.
Honeydripper is first and foremost a film about music; it captures the zeitgeist of the age through its transition from the blues to rock n roll. The film moseys along at a languid rhythm and blues pace, quickening on Sonnys arrival and gently crescendoing right up until his electric finale. Most of the film moves in time to the blues which dominates the soundtrack and serves as a reminder of the salient concerns of the Deep South in the fifties. Yet although harmonising the films tempo with that of the music is a neat device, the pace undoubtedly plods more than is bearable and is a little tedious. By the time the film does pick up, it ends, making the anticipation barely worth it. Sonnys climax comes and goes with little fanfare.
Films that linger, as indeed Honeydripper does, need to be buoyed up by a compelling script and characterisation, but Sayles latest is clichd and bogged down by embryonic subplots and themes that never justify their own inclusion. Without them the film would be too bare but their inclusion still feels redundant.
The characters are hackneyed caricatures: the racist white sheriff who likes dark meat; the omniscient blind musician who utters wise riddles; and the buxom man-eater who speaks in double-entendres. China Doll played by DaCosta does stand out amongst the otherwise anodyne cast and she gives an engaging performance as the sweet, caring southern belle who has ambitions far beyond her one-horse town. Purvis too is saved from total insipidity as his flaws his sheer desperation to save his joint including pilfering China Dolls beauty school fund make him more three-dimensional than the other characters.
Despite its faults, Honeydripper is a reasonably enjoyable film. You might leave the cinema feeling somewhat bored but will have experienced some real musical treats along the way. It is nevertheless probably one to watch on television rather than on the big screen.