It's 1950 in Harmony, Alabama and piano playing club owner Tyrone 'Pinetop' Purvis (Danny Glover, "Dreamgirls," "Shooter") sees that his blues star attraction Bertha Mae (Mable John) is bleeding customers to the jukebox at Touissant's down the road. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Pinetop fires Bertha and begs, borrows and steals to get New Orleans sensation Guitar Sam for a one night engagement to save his "Honeydripper."
Writer/director/editor John Sayles (who cameos as liquor truck driver Zeke) largely dispenses with his multi-character story style to focus on one Jim Crow South lounge and efforts to keep it afloat at the dawn of rock 'n roll. Sayles hasn't been at peak form for a decade now and while this small Indie isn't the type of project that will bring him some buzz back, it is a likeable, heartfelt film with several noteworthy characters and some fine music. Still, "Honeydripper" suffers from lethargic pacing, so a lot of good will is required to make it through to the electric climax.
On a late, lazy afternoon at the Honeydripper Lounge (Midway's Phelps Grocery closed since 1977, reborn) Bertha Mae's only audience is her adoring husband/manager Slick (Vondie Curtis-Hall, "Talk to Me") and a drunk. The employees outnumber the customers. Pinetop is told off by his religious wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton, TV's "The Practice," "Nine Lives") for allowing their daughter, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta, "Take the Lead"), to stand behind the bar. Tyrone's right hand man Maceo (Charles S. Dutton, "Gothika") pulls in another patron via the unwanted attentions of Rubenesque seamstress sexpot Nadine (Davenia McFadden, "Smokin' Aces").
After firing Bertha, Pinetop preps for the arrival of Guitar Sam with flyers, promises to the rent collector, the hijacking of Touissant's booze delivery and a wing and a prayer. Down at the train station, a young stranger, Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), arrives, guitar case in hand and notes that the town's name bodes well for a musician like himself. 'The only night I spent in jail was in a town called Liberty,' notes Shack Thomas (Daryl Edwards, "Rent"), who points the young man towards the Honeydripper. Pinetop too high on Guitar Sam to take Sonny seriously, so after allowing China Doll to fetch him a meal, he's sent on his way where he's soon picked up by the Sheriff (Stacy Keach, "Up in Smoke," "Come Early Morning") for vagrancy and sent to pick cotton in Judge Gatlin's fields.
And as anyone who's seen a few movies can tell you, of course Guitar Sam is a no show and Pinetop must scramble to spring Sonny to present as his headliner. With some costuming from Nadine, some hair straightening from cosmetician wannabe China Doll and a little electrical work, Sonny unveils a whole, new plugged-in sound to Harmony's surprise and delight.
Along the way, Sayles touches on racial discrimination (the forced labor engineered by Harmony corruption, the strained exchange between Delilah and her well-meaning but clueless employer Miss Amanda (Mary Steenburgen, "The Brave One"), the Sheriff's innuendo towards Pinetop's wife), but "Honeydripper" is about the music, right down to its cliche of the blind blues guitarist (Keb' Mo') who may or may not be real (awkwardly handled, he appears a figment of Pinetop's imagination at film's end, yet has had a conversation with Sonny). It's Pinetop's economically enforced acceptance of change that ushers in a whole new sound to Harmony and when Sonny lets loose, the joint starts jumping. "Honeydripper" comes alive in its final act, with the thrill of a young girl astonished to find herself the subject of a song and the excitement of kids who coil a cord outside so Sonny can lure Touissant's regulars with an impromptu outdoor number.
The actors - Glover's desperate Pinetop, Hamilton's searching Delilah, DaCosta's fresh-faced Doll, and Gary Clark Jr.'s strong debut as Sonny - keep us invested when Sayles lets his reins slacken. Not only is pacing an issue, but disjointed flashbacks are a sad reflection of how the device was used in 1996's "Lone Star." Despite its flaws, though, "Honeydripper" is a hard film to dislike, its late coming musical revelation just about worth waiting for.
Robin's review coming soon!
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