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MRQE Top Critic

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John Sayles is back in the saddle with another film in his regional cinema series. This one is set in Harmony, Alabama, during the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Low on Honey

If only he can hold out through the weekend, Pine-Top can save the Honeydripper
If only he can hold out through the weekend, Pine-Top can save the Honeydripper

Two gin joints sit next to each other outside of Harmony. Ours — the Honeydripper — features live music from a real class act: Bertha Mae (Mable John), presumably one of the best blues singers of her day. Unfortunately, her day was quite a while ago. The joint next door has only a juke box, but it has all the customers, especially the younger ones. They come from the army base, the nearby town, and the cotton fields to hear the latest sounds.

John Sayles’ audiences will be more interested in the characters and setting, but here’s the plot: the Honeydripper is in decline. In addition to the fierce competition from its more modern neighbor, it’s the subject of two hostile takeovers, one from an out-of-town businessman, one from the fat southern sheriff (yes, he fits all of the stereotypes).

The proprietor, “Pine-Top” (Danny Glover), sees the writing on the wall and fires Bertha Mae. Still, he’d rather have live music than a jukebox, and he manages to book Guitar Sam, the famous young man with the brand-new sound: electric guitar, but not that fancy Charlie Christian stuff — this is the raw, powerful sound that will become rock ‘n’ roll.

If Pine-Top can only hold off his creditors until after the Guitar Sam show, he should be able to keep the Honeydripper afloat.

People and Places

John Sayles movies are more about places than plots. He seems to be outpacing Sufjan Stevens — one opus per state — but with movies and not albums (Colorado: Silver City; Texas: Lone Star; Florida: Sunshine State, and now Alabama: Honeydripper). They are also more about the characters than conflicts. The long cast credits are listed alphabetically, like in a Robert Altman film.

This film’s nucleus is Glover as the owner of the Honeydripper. Around him orbit a dozen colorful characters that illustrate rural life in the early 1950s. His wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) cleans for the wealthy white woman in town (Mary Steenburgen), who, with the best intentions of friendship, nevertheless condescends to her employee. Their beautiful young daughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta) isn’t quite old enough to have learned the bitterness of racial prejudice that is peacefully taken for granted in Harmony.

There’s also the kid (Gary Clark, Jr.) who comes to town, guitar in hand. He’s just passing through, and he can’t get a gig. He ends up picking cotton for the sheriff (Stacy Keach) who’s in cahoots with the judge; they arrest “vagrants” on trumped-up charges and put them to work on the judge’s cotton plantation.

Pine-Top’s partner (Charles Dutton) is pursued by the town’s most competent seamstress. There is a blind seer (Keb’ Mo’) in town in the guise of a bluesman; he haunts anyone with a musical bone in their body. A city-slicker negro comes down to make a little extra money picking cotton; he schools the locals on the ways of the world.

Fair to Middlin’

Honeydripper is much better than Sayles’ Silver City, but not as good as Lone Star. When Sayles is at his best, the separate threads of the many characters weave together into a beautiful and complex kilim. When he’s struggling, some threads clash with others, and the weave is uneven. Honeydripper holds together pretty well, although there are a few uneven lumps in the warp and weft.

Start with Keach’s fat southern sheriff character. He seems to be Jackie Gleason, circa Smokey and the Bandit, reincarnated. It’s not that the acting is bad or even that the character is unbelievable; but he just fits the stereotype so well that it’s distracting.

Ditto for the story’s main conflict — to save the bar, our hero just needs one big show, and then he can pay the rent. It’s a plot that seems to be lifted from some of the Marx Brothers movies — in their case it was an easy plot from which to hang their gags and musical numbers; in Sayles’ case, it gives him room to hang the details of the locale. It works just fine, but it’s so overused that it’s distracting.

Ticket Sayles

For those who don’t know Sayles’ work, Honeydripper is maybe a little hard to get excited about it; doesn’t spark the urgent need for conversation with friends afterwards like Lone Star does.

But fans of Sayles should rejoice that Honeydripper is not half bad. If the last film you saw was Silver City, see this one to restore your faith.