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Starring: Danny Glover, Gary Clark Jr., Keb Mo, Ruth Brown, Kel Mitchell

Directed by: John Sayles

Produced by: John Sayles, Maggie Renzi

Written by: John Sayles

Distributor: Emerging Pictures


As seen at AFI Fest 2007:


     In Honeydripper, John Sayles points his camera at a setting that is often ignored by contemporary filmmakers: the American South of the 1950s. The film focuses on Tyrone ďPine TopĒ Purvis (Danny Glover), the soulful old-time proprietor of the Honeydripper, a bar and club in Harmony, Alabama. Despite offering the sweet-sounding vocals of long-time house singer Bertha Mae (Mable John), the Honeydripper seems to be doomed to failure now that it has to compete with a rival club across the street, which has installed the young-people-magnet that is a jukebox. But Pine Top isnít ready to go down without a fight, mainly because he is determined to get back at his pompous landlord, who would much rather use the property for other purposes. In order to bring in some desperately-needed revenue, Pine Top, against his own personal musical beliefs, books rock-Ďn-roll hit-maker Guitar Sam to play a show at the Honeydripper.

     By the time that the day of the concert rolls around, circumstances change, as expected. The real Guitar Sam is nowhere to be found. In order to still put on a show, Pine Top pulls a fast one and hires aspiring young guitarist Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), who first came to the Honeydripper looking for a job after randomly ending up in Harmony, to pretend as if he is Guitar Sam. This, of course, also proves a challenge in and of itself. After coming to town, Sonny is arrested by a racist cop for wandering around aimlessly without being employed. Tyrone must buy Sonny out of his labor sentence, in which Sonny picks cotton alongside dozens of other innocent black men, for the night. After much hoopla, Sonny is finally able to give the gig a try.

     Structurally and thematically, Honeydripper is Saylesí most straightforward film to date. Regardless of this, the movie has a lot to say. Its depiction of black culture in a setting of extreme racial tension is subtle, factual, and extremely affecting. The viewer comes to care for the filmís characters as people, and this makes the discrimination that they endure seem all the more disgusting. And, still, the movie is hardly as much about race relations in America as it is about the joyous, healing effect of music. Rock-Ďn-roll functions as a prominent character in and of itself in Honeydripper, providing an equal amount of context for the film as the cut-and-dry historical elements do. No one song is particularly striking so much as the work as a whole is: Sayles makes sure to thoroughly explore the effect and consequence of simple rhythm.

     Meanwhile, the humanity found in Honeydripper is also undeniably moving, with rich, poignant performances coming from nearly every member of the cast. In the lead role, Glover is a revelation. As much as I hate the manís politics and life outside of Hollywood, it is impossible for me to deny the raw power of his interpretation of Pine Top. In more ways than one, the character has a tormented soul during the filmís first two acts; to observe the manner in which Glover depicts his transformation of healing as the plot progresses is something of a miracle. Also exceptionally impressive efforts found in the ensemble are those of Clark Jr.; Lisa Gay Hamilton as Pine Topís wife, Delilah; and Yaya DaCosta as Pine Topís daughter, China Doll.

     For Sayles, the film is clearly a deeply personal passion-project (then again, when has one of his efforts not been?); his care for his characters and the story that they embody is evident in every frame. Because of this, Honeydripper always strikes the viewer as an incredibly pleasant work. It softly builds to create a very enjoyable, accomplished mix of history, emotion, and art. While I am hesitant to call it a great film because of the fact that it ultimately lacks consequence, I certainly recommend it to just about everyone. Rarely do crowd-pleasers have as much heart or as much intellect as Honeydripper does.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 11.21.2007

Screened on: 11.4.2007 at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, CA


Honeydripper is rated PG-13 and runs 122 minutes.

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