Honeydripper: The Movie

Posted on: 28 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

A fable about the birth of rock 'n' roll in the segregated USA south.


It is not often that one finds music so integral to a film as in John Sayles's latest work Honeydripper, a characteristically intelligent and beautifully crafted tale covering the birth of rock and roll and the coming to dominance of the electric guitar in the American south of the 1950s.

The title refers to the Honeydripper Lounge, a once popular club on the outskirts of town that has now fallen on hard times. The juke joint is run by Tyrone 'Pinetop' Purvis (Danny Glover), a piano man from way back who hasn't changed much since then.

He still prefers to book live music than play his jukebox, and this comes in the shape of Bertha Mae (the excellent Mabel John), a chanteuse whose heyday was 30 years before but who has lost none of her appeal or charisma, belting out the blues in a beaded gown from the 20s.

But it is the place across the way, The Ace of Spades, that draws the crowds with its jukebox blaring loud, contemporary music.

The future looks bleak, that is until Sonny (impressive newcomer and guitar prodigy Gary Clark Jr) appears on the scene. He is a talented guitarist just out of the army and looking to make a name for himself. Against his better judgment, in a last-ditch attempt to save the Honeydripper, Tyrone hires the young man with surprising results.

Written, directed and edited by Sayles, this is a film peopled with indelible characters brought to life with effortless ease. Sayles is more concerned with exploring the texture of a time in transition than exposing the ills of that time, notably colour prejudice and racial segregation. His script, though, is as you might expect sharp and illuminating, with the occasional poetic touch, as exemplified by one individual comparing the distant whistle of a train to "a soul being carried away from this life!"

The social background of poor, exploited black workers collecting the harvest for meagre wages, yet somehow finding some joy in their miserable lives, is authentically drawn.

Apart from the performances I have already noted, there are strong contributions from Lisa Gay Hamilton as Tyrone's wife, Charles S Dutton as his sidekick and employee, Stacy Keach as the local white sheriff, and Davenia McFadden as a woman of large appetites and mercurial moods.

Yet it is the first rate musical soundtrack featuring a host of great numbers and a number of real life bluesmen such as Keb Mo that makes this film such a rich and rewarding experience.

Now showing at Curzons Mayfair and Soho and the Gate Notting Hill.

Laurence Green

Web Links

The film website: honeydripper-movie.com

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