HONEYDRIPPER (John Sayles). 119 minutes. Opens Thursday (January 31). Rating: NNNN
From the opening shot of two small black boys by a shack playing imaginary music on a diddley bow and homemade paper piano keyboard, we know we’re in for a movie about music.
A moment later, when they sneak into a juke joint where an old woman in tattered finery sings a Tampa Red hokum blues in the even older classic blues style of Bessie Smith, we know the music is the blues.
We’re in rural 1950 Alabama, where Tyrone Purvis’s (Danny Glover) roadhouse is failing, done in by the modern music in the competing bar. If the bar goes down, Tyrone and his family are destitute. He’s pinned all his hopes on booking hot recording artist Guitar Sam, so when Sam fails to show, Tyrone concocts a hopeless scheme. At the same time, his wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), keeps trying to find born-again salvation in a local gospel tent.
Writer/director John Sayles and his cast deliver great naturalistic drama; the script applies wholly realistic pressure to his characters. Extortion is everyday business for the black gangster who leans on Tyrone. Both the wandering musician and the sheriff who, without cause, imprisons him to pick cotton for the local judge accept their situations calmly.
Underneath, as we’d expect of black people living under Jim Crow, simmers a quiet bitterness that fuels some nicely restrained performances and great moments. The scene between Delilah and her white employer, Miss Amanda (Mary Steenburgen), is a marvel of subtext. Miss Amanda almost writhes with unspoken anxiety and conflicted feelings, while Delilah sits calm in her bone-deep mistrust.
Throughout, Sayles and his camera stay out of the way, letting the scene play to its conclusion. This gives his film a leisurely pace that, thanks to his adroit way with narrative, never lags.
The restraint in the film’s performance and visual style is at odds with the passionate music that matters so much to the characters without giving them joy, or even relief. That’s a common theme in the blues: “I just can’t be satisfied.”
Sayles knows exactly what he’s doing with the music. His occasional use of iconic blues shots – the lonesome guitarist by the railroad tracks, the prisoner singing Midnight Special to himself – demonstrates that. Only short snatches are heard; we feel the characters’ frustration more keenly because we’re feeling some of our own at not hearing more.
When the music finally does erupt, our own sense of release matches the characters’ and tells us how provisional and temporary, and therefore important, that release is.
It’s a remarkable achievement and clearly a heartfelt tribute to a music that has all too often been relegated to beer commercials.