When Honeydripper opens, we see two young boys. One's fingers are pulling away at a string, while the other's are pounding piano keys painted on a piece of wood. While their music echoes only in their minds, their passion is palpable. This sweet scene is, in a way, a perfect metaphor for the work of John Sayles -- his films are, at once, both subdued and sonorous. However, where most of them seek to reveal hidden layers and webs, Honeydripper is a simple and plainly executed ode to the start of rock 'n' roll.
Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover) is the proprietor of the Honeydripper -- an ailing club in a town called Harmony, deep in 1950's Alabama. While he offers the stunning voice of Bertha Mae (Mable John), his competition, a hop free of a skip and a jump away, offers a loud and rowdy jukebox that draws in the crowds in droves. Pine Top has one last chance to save his club, or his landlord will rent the building to someone else. The plan -- bring in radio phenomenon Guitar Sam to perform for just one Saturday night. (This is a bit unheard of for the musician-turned-bar owner, as he considers guitar players to be dangerous.)
Meanwhile, a young kid named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) jumps out of a train car running by the local station, and he ends up at the Honeydripper. Pine Top gives him a meal, but will have none of his guitar-playing ways. He's got Guitar Sam, after all. While Tyrone tries to work through a number of crises, Sonny gets arrested by the local bigot sheriff (Stacy Keach) for walking down the road without a job, and he becomes work labor for the local cotton crops. When Guitar Sam is a no-show, however, Pine Top cooks up a scheme to have Sonny impersonate him with his hand-made electric guitar and amplifier. As all of this boils, he also has to soothe over his relationship with Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), because his desperation to succeed is hurting their marriage.
For Sayles fans, the comparisons to Lone Star are easily recognizable -- the small-town sheriff, the African-American bar owner -- it's just that the focus is switched for this tale, and there's no murder mystery to ponder. The same, Sayles slow-to-build tone is there, but not the sense of discovery. It's a story we already know, headed towards an obvious conclusion, and marked with classic cliches (like the blind, omniscient musician). But it is also sweet, and it is clear that John Sayles isn't making his typical film. This time around, he's using his passion for cinema to delight in his love of rock 'n' roll.
Each character is a breath of fresh air, due to the strong performances of the cast, from the likes of old mainstays like Charles S. Dutton, who plays Pine Top's cohort Maceo, to new talent like Yaya DaCosta, who plays his heart-ailing stepdaughter, China Doll. But the performance that reigns is also one of the briefest -- Bertha Mae's confidant, Slick, who is wonderfully-played by Vondie Curtis-Hall. While his moments are brief, each expression that crosses his face is gripping -- from blazing admiration to deep sadness.
The biggest pitfall of this film is that there isn't enough of Sonny's show. After almost two hours of build-up, the final performance is painfully short. I wonder if this has to do with financing and time -- Sayles actually wrote many of the songs in the film, such as Sonny's ode to China Doll. Nevertheless, this time around, John Sayles has let us relax and enjoy the solid actors, steady script, and beating music. There are no trips to Limbo that tug on your curiosities, and no Passion Fish to ponder.