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A Rollicking R&B Fantasy

Set in Harmony, Alabama, on the eve of the civil rights movement that would transform the politics of the rural South if not its economic landscape, Honeydripper is a good-natured comedy with a rhythm-and blues-soundtrack that boasts more energy, at times, than its easygoing script. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

It may not represent the most compelling work we’ve seen from independent filmmaker John Sayles – that honor belongs to the rich, mythic storytelling of Lone Star and City of Hope –- but like even his lesser efforts, it unfolds with a graceful, almost effortless style that reflects a mastery of the craft.

Like Big Night, in which the fortunes of a floundering Italian restaurant hinged on a well-publicized appearance by Louis Prima, Honeydripper invites us into the world of Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), whose lounge of the same name has fallen on hard times. In debt and hunting for a big enough score to save the business, Purvis books legendary bluesman Guitar Sam out of New Orleans, not sure whether he’ll even show. (If Sam does show, he will likely be disappointed by the pay – Purvis has to steal booze just to keep the bar stocked.) Undeterred, he posters the town and hopes for the best.

Purvis meets a potential savior in Sonny (Gary Clark Jr., a searing bluesman in his own right), who introduces the Honeydripper crowd to a strange creation called an electric guitar, and yes, the boy can play. Can he cover for Guitar Sam in a pinch? Or will he be run out of town by the racist sheriff (Stacy Keach) who wouldn’t hesitate to arrest a young drifter simply for being black?

Sayles seamlessly weaves their stories into a fabric made tighter by the presence of the director himself, on hand as a liquor salesman; Dr. Mable John, as the Honeydripper’s distinguished house singer; and Charles Dutton, who plays Purvis’ best friend Maceo. Maceo is a patient listener, and he empathizes with his friend’s financial woes – he just wonders whether the Guitar Sam scheme is such a solid one.

Honeydripper is a rollicking fable that moves at its own pace, content to entertain with a kind of casual ease; as usual, he integrates the stories of his lovingly conceived characters with a deft touch, combining measured social commentary with some raucous, early rock ’n’ roll. It is hardly the director’s most ambitious statement, but as always, it’s a pleasure to watch him work.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars