HONEYDRIPPER written and directed by John Sayles, with Gary Clark Jr., Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Charles S. Dutton, Stacy Keach, Keb’ Mo’ and Mary Steenburgen. An Anarchists’ Convention Films release. 123 minutes. Rating: NNNNN
Rising guitar star Gary Clark Jr. meets indie filmmaker John Sayles at the crossroads of R&B and rock ’n’ roll
How is Gary Cark Jr. celebrating Black History Month?
“Well, I don’t just take this one month and celebrate it,” he says in a laid-back twang over the phone from his Austin home. “I’m black every month of the year. I’m not dancing in the streets or anything like that.”
So it’s safe to say he won’t be standing on the corner handing out Jesse Jackson biographies.
What the musician will be doing is promoting his first acting role in a film. Clark stars in director John Sayles’s Honeydripper, an experience that came as close to reliving black history as you can get.
It’s set in racially turbulent Alabama in 1950, and Clark plays Sonny, a phenomenal but unknown guitarist who also picks cotton.
“I made this huge realization, ” he says the day after the film’s premiere.
“My grandmother grew up in the South, and her mother grew up in Texas and Arkansas. Real South. So when I was out there, the life just hit me. I was like, ‘Wow, as an actor I get to go to the trailer or go to the hotel. I get to leave this, while they worked their asses off all day for a nickel.’”
This humbling insight was made possible by Clark’s proficiency in a deep-rooted facet of African-American culture: the blues. It was the musician’s fancy Fender fingerwork that landed him the gig opposite Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton and a whole host of living-legend players.
Louis Black, editor of the Austin Chronicle, hooked him up with the gig. He told Clark that Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi were looking for a young African-American blues guitarist. After coming down to Austin to check out his show, the player did an informal reading (his hands were shaking, he admits) for the accomplished director.
“First of all, he blew us away at the club,” says Sayles, at the InterContinetal Hotel in Toronto.
“He’s not a flashy performer or a cocky performer, and the guy in the movie has to be. But when we did the readings, we just went back and forth. He would listen before he said a line, which is huge for an actor.”
“I wasn’t trying to get into acting,” Clark says. “It just kind of fell out of the sky for me.”
Frankly, his seemingly effortless quantum leap from music to movies has sparked some resentment.
“I’ve got some friends who are actors, ” he says. “They’re happy for me, but at the same time they’re like, ‘Man, seriously? Like, really? You got that role?’”
His pals’ frustration becomes understandable when you ask Clark about his favourite films.
“Um, favourite movies. Hmm...,” he says.
“I’ve been so involved in music that I didn’t go to movies until I got this role. Um, I liked that American Gangster a lot.”
That doesn’t mean his initiation into acting was easy. Beyond revisiting the cruel past, Clark struggled with Sayles’s demands for more emotion.
“Sometimes he wanted me to show more frustration or be cockier or whatever, so we had to do a couple takes of scenes like that. That was a challenge for me – to break the barrier of things that felt uncomfortable for me, you know, and give my best for the story.”
The narrative, part of the story of the birth of rock, was important to the filmmaker.
“I love some of the lyrics and melodies from the songs of that era,” says Sayles. “A line in the one over the final credits is ‘The music keeps moving on.’ And that’s life, that’s not just music. Nothing happens in a vacuum; it all comes from something else. Rock ’n’ roll came from gospel, blues, country, western, all these things. And some cool musicians created that spark” – the director snaps his fingers – “and took it to the next level.”
During his research for the film, Sayles was fascinated by what he learned. He speaks excitedly about discovering a 50s jukebox playlist from the Deep South, and its diversity of genres.
He also looked into the invention of the electric guitar and how people at the time responded to it, which led to one of the film’s best scenes, when Glover’s character first witnesses the newfangled instrument.
On a wider scale, he gravitated to the story for its lost quality.
“One thing that I realized, examining 1950, is that just as the Korean War is the forgotten war – it’s not World War I or II, not a lot of people know what year it was in – this era of music, the rhythm and blues era with that honking saxophone, has almost been forgotten,” he says.
“Oldies stations start with Elvis. The Sinatra stations go back to swing music. There’s a seven-year period when these guys were the kings of popular music, and no one remembers. What’s that about?”
Honeydripper is a deep, sensitive slice of African-American culture. The rich cinematography, carefully assembled cast of players and actors and attention to detail, down to the script’s clever yet natural dialogue, reflect Sayles’s deep reverence for this era of musical history.
But on some real shit, what makes this middle-aged white man from the Wonderbread village of Schenectady feel like he has the right to tell such a significant black story? What’s that about?
Just who the hell does he think he is, Spike Lee?
“Not really,” Sayles says. “I started writing novels in 1975. I had white characters, black characters, hispanic characters. I directed two movies in Spanish. The Brother From Another Planet came out in 1983 – that’s an almost all-black cast. It’s something I’ve done before and that I’m comfortable doing.
“I would have a harder time writing about Korean people in Korea, because I don’t speak their language or know much about their culture. But this is a culture that’s a part of American culture, that’s accessible to me. I can talk to people. People from this era are still alive, people who have written about it. I can go to the Library of Congress and get a CD of Leadbelly talking about his music. It’s there.”
Clark fits well in the film as the naive yet determined young talent, playing off the cast’s energy with an innate sense of familiarity. Of course, it may not have been the biggest stretch for Clark to play a musician (Sayles agrees: “We weren’t asking him to play King Henry VIII”), though he says the role has opened up some good opportunities for further filmwork.
As Sonny, it’s his job to imitate Southern rock star Guitar Sam after Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Glover) falsely promises the player will appear at the ailing club he owns called The Honeydripper.
Now 24, Clark taught himself to play the guitar at 12, and in his teens he played on Austin’s 6th Street at a weekly jam run by Walter Higgs of the band Walter Higgs and the Shufflepigs. Clark played with greats like James Cotton, and Jimmy Vaughn invited him on a U.S. tour.
He’s released a few albums independently: Worry No More, a bedroom project called 110 and covers record Tribute, with versions of songs by blues greats like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy Waters and Albert King. His deep appreciation of the music put him in awe of members of Honeydripper’s musical cast (who all performed live), including Dr. Mable John, Jerry Portnoy and Arthur Lee Williams.
“I grew up listening to these people,” says Clark. “Eddie Shaw played with Howlin’ Wolf. I’m a huge Howlin’ Wolf fan. Keb’ Mo’ – I watched him on Austin City Limits. I’ve got his tape dubbed. I’d just sit and watch that for hours, trying to pick up on what he did, so getting to work with him and these people, I was like, ‘Am I really doing this?’”
“It brings your game up to work with a good older actor or performer,” says Sayles of the dynamic between the young and elderly sides of the cast. “You see it in sports as well. You get into their groove and it lifts your game. I've seen it at shows, too, where an older player will tell a younger one, ‘Take it,’ and the kid is like, ‘Whoa’ and then takes it. And then they’re supporting you. Good musicians will do that.”
For Clark, another surreal aspect of being in the film was the primitive electric guitar his character plays. It’s a far cry from the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson ES-125 he strums in real life. Crafted from a big plank of wood in Florida, the weighty axe was sent to him a couple of weeks before shooting.
“It was just a heavy chunk of wood,” he says. “It was crazy. The guy who made it, Ted Crawford, hand-wound the pickups and everything just to make it authentic, give it that homemade feel of back in the day. He just cut a tree down and took a chunk of wood, man. It was heavy, but it worked.”
Your guess is as good as Clark’s about the fate of that old chunk of wood.
“I don’t know where it is! They were supposed to send it to me, but they haven’t yet.
“I want it back.”
Danny Glover complemented his acting, literally, Gary Clark Jr. says.
Has Clark Jr.'s role in Honeydripper opened any other acting opportunities? According to the musician, yes.
Sometimes parents just don't understand. Clark Jr.'s were no different.
Now a local legend in Austin, Clark Jr. taught himself to play from age 12, in 1996.
There had to be a cotton picking seminar before the film, director John Sayles says.
Sayles, on what he left Clark Jr. with after the reading.
Hiphop cred: Sayles acted with Tupac as Cop #1 in the film Gridlock'd.
Official Honeydripper trailer.
John Sayles’s top 5 blues songs
Wynonie Harris Washing Machine Blues
Ruth Brown’s first album for Atlantic, with Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean
Louis Jordan’s first album with the Tympany Five
Any of Hank Williams’s stuff from the late 40s
Lil Green Why Don’t You Do Right?, covered by Peggy Lee, Jessica Rabbit