LITTLE ROCK It's painful to meet good intention and humble sincerity with harsh judgment, but John Sayles' Honeydripper is a tone deaf movie, filled with obvious, overly expository dialogue and sometimes patronizing symbols. While it is not a complete failure - there is a residual entertainment value to the film that's probably due to the professionalism of all involved - it never rises above mediocrity, which makes it all the more difficult for a Sayles fan to sit through.
It means to be a rock 'n' roll origin legend, positing that the "jungle music," which so frightened the defenders of the color line, grew out of economic opportunism and the subversive resourcefulness of the oppressed. It gives us a steamy rural South, presumably set in 1950 Alabama, and a grayed-over Danny Glover as a roadhouse owner named "Pinetop" Purvis, a former blues pianist who finds his Honeydripper Lounge losing market share to Toussaint's, the jukebox-driven joint next door.
Pinetop's name evokes 94-year-old Pinetop Perkins, John Lee Hooker's pianist, and maybe Purvis' distaste for guitars has its roots in Perkins' history (he was a guitar player until he seriously hurt his arm in a scuffle in Helena). Purvis doesn't like guitar players and won't allow the instrument in his club - until, desperate to compete with his neighbors, he books New Orleans sensation Guitar Sam into his club for a special one-night-only performance.
While they're waiting for Guitar Sam to show up, mustered-out soldier Sonny Blake (Gary Parker Jr.) shows up looking for a plate of beans or, even better, some work. He's got a homemade electrified guitar - a Bo Diddley-looking instrument he claims he can play as well as any Guitar Sam. Purvis can't help him, so Sonny wanders down the road where he's arrested by bigoted (though in some respects surprisingly benign) Sheriff Pugh (Stacy Keach) on the wince-inducing charge of "gawkery with the intent to mope."
What the sheriff is really doing is procuring free labor for the county judge's cotton patch, while fluttery but kind Southern gentlewoman Amanda (Mary Steenburgen, in what amounts to an extended cameo) inadvertently condescends to her maid(Lisa Gay Hamilton), Purvis' churchgoing wife, who in turn has a problem with her husband's line of work.
When Guitar Sam doesn't get off his train the stage is set for a predictable situation-comedy denouement that is semi-redeemed by a fine musical performance by Parker, whom Sayles had the wisdom to record live as the scene was shot. There are characters named Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) and a magical blind blues guitarist/dispenser of Zen wisdom played by Keb' Mo'; you can probably figure out how they fit in.
That's not to say there isn't something besides received dignity in Glover's stiff-legged, weary trudge or the way his facial muscles settle into a frown. It's just that Sayles' script readsearnest to the point of naivete and there is hardly an honestsounding line spoken in the movie. Sayles is going for a fable, a grand statement about how the soul of a man transcends the petty boundaries of race and place. But too often, Honeydripper defaults to easy stereotypes and the kind of quaint romanticism that not even professional Southerners should be able to get away with anymore.
Honeydripper77Cast: Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton,Stacy Keach, Gary Parker Jr., Mary Steenburgen, Keb' Mo', Lisa Gay Hamilton Director: John Sayles Rating: PG-13 for language Running time: 124 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 46, 51 on 03/21/2008