John Sayles the storyteller and John Sayles the political progressive haven’t always played well together, but, in the endearing musical time-piece “Honeydripper,” the indie icon lets his narrative gifts take the lead and the social issues follow like a tight bass line. The result is one of Sayles’ best films. The music, a mix of blues, seminal rock and newcomer Gary Clark Jr.’s performance, will be an obvious draw, as will the performances by some leading African-American actors.
In’50s Alabama, the beleaguered Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) is deeply in debt and about to lose his roadhouse, the Honeydripper, when he gets a brainstorm: He’ll book regional celebrity Guitar Sam to play the club, have the best Saturday night of his life and use the proceeds to pay off the landlord and the chicken man, and to get his nightclub out of hock.
The problem? Purvis doesn’t have any money to book Guitar Sam, isn’t sure where to find him, and doesn’t know if he’d show up anyway. But Purvis steals a load of booze from the liquor man (a cameo by Sayles), and, despite the apprehensions of his buddy Maceo (Charles S. Dutton), starts putting up posters advertising Guitar Sam.
Everything is set up to build to a suspenseful Saturday night, which is effective because the population surrounding Purvis and the Honeydripper is such a well-cut cast of Southern characters. They include Tyrone’s queenly house singer Bertha Mae (Dr. Mable John) and her consort Slick (Vondie Curtis Hall); the corpulent white sheriff Pugh (Stacey Keach), who keeps Purvis under constant duress; Purvis’ beautiful stepdaughter China Doll (terrific newcomer Yaya DaCosta); and his wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who is having a struggle of the soul choosing between a charismatic church leader and her considerably less devout husband.
Into this mix comes the wandering Sonny Blake (Clark), an itinerant bluesman cut from the Robert Johnson legend, claiming to be as good a player as Guitar Sam and toting a guitar cut out of a solid block of wood. It’s electric. No one’s ever seen one — which is no accident. The community around the Honeydripper is supposedly set in 1950s Alabama but it could be the ’40s, ’30s or ’20s — the point being that for Southern rural black America, not much changed for a long, long time.
Moviegoers may find politics if they want to in “Honeydripper,” or they may just be drawn along by the story of a Saturday night when everything could go right or wrong. And no one’s really sure until the end which way it’s going to be.