Wednesday, September 19, 2007

IFP: Honeydripper

Juke joints were associated with two things: getting down and getting dead. Blues drenched killings have been immortalized in the lyrics of such classics like “Stagger Lee,” which is in fact heard in John Sayles’ new juke drama Honeydripper (trailer here), which formally opened Independent Film Week Mon. night. As a juke joint drama, it shows both the good times and the undercurrent of potential violence that often accompanied the Devil Blues.

Being a John Sayles film, Honeydripper (named after one such juke) eases into its plot at a leisurely pace. Again, as is often the case with Sayles films, it has a strong sense of place. Set in 1950 Alabama, it presents the trials facing juke owner and former big band pianist Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis, a well meaning family man overwhelmed by his current circumstances. Danny Glover plays Purvis, basically recreating the same character he has played for the last twenty years. In fact, Honeydripper’s biggest fault is the relative weakness of its characterizations. For instance, Stacy Keach’s corrupt sheriff is only a pale shadow of Lone Star’s Kris Kristofferson, a villain who can evidently be bought off with a fried chicken drumstick.

Perhaps the most intriguing character is a mysterious itinerant blues musician played by Keb’ Mo’, whose benevolence or malevolence remains an open question in the film. His appearances are also occasions for some pretty cool solo guitar work from Mo.’

The music of Honeydripper is spot on, capturing the period when the blues was evolving into R&B, which of course would be popularized to white teenagers as rock & roll. In addition to Mo’s tasty solos, there is some impressive work from the emerging Texas blues musician Gary Clark, Jr. as the young new guitar slinger in town. The great Dr. Mabel John also contributes some rocking vocals. John appears to be experiencing a late career renaissance, having also published her first novel late last year (reviewed here).

Honeydripper looks right and sounds great. It may not be perfect, but its blues literacy is readily evident. Unlike many of the films screening this week, it is completely finished and placed with a distributor. Look for it late in the year.