Sayles / Renzi make sweet music

Posted: February 01, 2008

John Sayles is a natural storyteller and national treasure, dedicated to spinning narratives of America, state by state, into a vibrant quilt of 20th-century American history.

Set in Harmony, Alabama, circa 1950, Honeydripper takes place when both the equal-rights struggle and the blues went electric.

Danny Glover stars as Pine Top Purvis, stoop-shouldered proprietor of Honeydripper, a lounge dismissed as a "darktown roadhouse" by Harmony's bigoted sheriff (Stacy Keach).

Pine Top, whose headliner is the weary blues-hen Bertha Mae (Mable John), has lost business to the lively juke joint down the road. When he plugs in the Honeydripper jukebox and it shorts the electric system, it's a sign.

Like his lounge, Pine Top, a onetime boogie-woogie pianist, seems to have lost his juice. He's way behind in rent, he owes the liquor distributor and the chicken man, and his wife (lovely Lisa Gay Hamilton) wants him to consider a more reliable line of work.

Tired and beleaguered as he is, Pine Top wants to work for himself. He can't consider working as a menial for the cotton plantation up the road, no matter how steady the paycheck is.

As in all the films from Sayles and Maggie Renzi, his longtime producer and life partner - never understood why we don't call them Sayles/Renzi films, as we say Merchant/Ivory movies - the focus is not on one man, but his community. The electricity may be on the fritz but the Honeydripper Lounge is a circuit with many branches.

Effectively, Harmony has three community centers: the cotton fields, the Pentecostal revival tent, and the nearby military base. The Honeydripper is one hive where citizens from all walks of life can buzz.

While Pine Top may be oblivious to this, the audience is not. Pine Top also initially is oblivious to Sonny, played by Gary Clark Jr., an itinerant guitarist reminiscent of Chuck Berry. But the impresario comes around.

Because Sayles so affectionately shows what the lounge represents to various community members, we see the Honeydripper as the pride of black entrepreneurship, a place to celebrate African American music and a safe place to vent steam.

A gifted writer and director of actors (including newcomer Yaya DaCosta), Sayles is not his own best film editor. He loves his performers so much that he's loath to cut glances and gazes that don't advance the story. Thus, in its first half, Honeydripper trickles. In its second, it really flows.

How Pine Top schemes to pay back his creditors and how he inadvertently sets the stage for the blues' evolution into R&B, is the bass line of the film that builds to the Best. Saturday. Night. Ever.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at crickey@phillynews.com or 215-854-5402. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http:go.philly.com/flickgrrl/

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