“Honeydripper,” written and directed by John Sayles, is a bluesy, breezy period concoction about the advent of rock and roll — the musical forms that gave rise to the thrill, the electricity of it all, its effect on the people of a fabular town sorely needing a jump start.
This isn’t a particularly good film. Sayles, not the nimblest of directors, is rocky with the steerage. But thanks to his way with a culture’s cosmos, it’s often irresistible.
Like many a Sayles project, the story is an issue-laced tapestry set in a distinctive pocket on the human-experience map — a segregated southern town, circa 1950, this time. Civil rights are on the horizon and rock and roll is ready to happen in Harmony, Ala.
The title is that of the black juke joint run by debt-plagued Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), a boogie-woogie piano player with a loyal sidekick (Charles S. Dutton), a religious wife named Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), and a stepdaughter (Yaya DaCosta) with beautician dreams.
Desperate to save his club, Purvis fires his aging singer (Mabel John) and books blues sensation Guitar Sam for a gig. When Guitar Sam doesn’t show, Purvis recruits electric-guitar-toting drifter Sonny Blake (Gary Clark Jr.) to impersonate him. Will Sonny deliver?
Supporting characters and subplots abound, this being a Sayles film. Racist Sheriff Pugh (Stacy Keach) falsely arrests Sonny and orders him to pick cotton. Delilah attends revival meetings and clashes with her religiously “unaffiliated” husband. Delilah does housekeeping work for decent but clueless Miss Amanda (Mary Steenburgen).
“Honeydripper” is among the weaker films of Sayles, whose higher achievements include “Eight Men Out” and “Sunshine State.” The plot navigation is clunky.
Some of the characters, including wisdom-oozing blind guitarist Possum (Keb’ Mo’), are clichés. A potentially compelling argument between Purvis and Delilah, powerfully acted by Glover and Hamilton, lacks crucial buildup. A flashbacky thread involving a violent episode in Purvis’ past plays superficially.
Yet while such flaws keep things hit-and-miss, Sayles deserves credit for creating a vibrant universe containing characters you can care about and music that might equal salvation. He captures the significance of black American music, represented here by blues, boogie-woogie, gospel, and, in the winning climax, raw, galvanic early rock and roll.
The solid cast delivers some terrific performances, Dutton in particular. In a fitting stroke, Sayles has cast, with the exception of Glover, real musicians in the necessary roles.
Starring Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Gary Clark Jr., Keb' Mo', Charles S. Dutton
Written and directed by John Sayles
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes