Writer/director John Sayles is known for his penchant for multiple subplots and peripheral characters to help tell stories. But that weight all but sinks his latest effort, Honeydripper, which tries to come off as mythology but instead feels too much like cliché.
Which is a pity, considering Sayles was once one of the shining stars of filmmaking with movies ranging from Matewan (1987) to Lone Star (1996). During that decade-plus stretch, Sayles showed an obvious affection for his people and their places (Appalachia, Louisiana, Ireland, Texas, etc.), and often their music. But the decade since has all but signaled a gradual downward spiral in his storytelling spark.
Somewhere along the way, Sayles seemed to become too much enthralled in the myths he tried to create. In telling the story of a bluesman hoping to save a 1950s-era Alabama juke-joint owner, Sayles breaks out every stereotype in the book. A dark past sparked by a knife's slash, a blind guitarist spinning pearls of wisdom, a sinister white sheriff, a wife caught between her god and her husband, a burly sharecropper with more brains than brawn ... when or where will it end? No, really, when?
The story is predictably one of redemption, and nobody deserves it more than Danny Glover's Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis, a former boogie-woogie piano player whose aforementioned juke joint is being whomped by the competition next door and its livelier collection of jukebox hits. (Thank God they didn't have an iPod back then.) Even the blues-belting Bertha Mae (played all too briefly by the legendary Mable John) can't help. So Pinetop conspires to bring in the popular Magic Sam from New Orleans, with his electric guitar and personality, to bring in a huge payday that will satisfy his demanding landlords and the sheriff (Stacy Keach), who's just itching to take over the place.
Perfect timing for Sonny (actual blues-guitar wiz Gary Clark Jr.), who wanders into town, obviously impressed with the entertainment district of the small town – real name, kid you not: Harmony – and wants a gig from the suspicious, skeptical Pinetop. Well, the two initially clash, as unbelievably as many of the other coupled characters in Sayles' clumsy attempt at dramatic conflict. Then the movie goes into a series of subplots, most unnecessary or thinly developed, all leading to the big concert that will resolve everything.
Glover, one of the great character actors of his generation, almost holds up the movie with his performance. At 61, with a round face cut with deeper lines, Glover can do more with a gravelly whisper than most actors can do yelling. He lopes around in measured steps, always seemingly teetering on the brink of disaster.
He's always been a bit of a fighter in his roles, but this time the odds indeed seem stacked. If Sayles' script wasn't so telegraphed for him to win, you'd better believe Glover's craftily built sense of guilt and doubt.
But even Glover can't fight the clichés. Pinetop Purvis shouldn't be confused with Pinetop Perkins, nor should Guitar Sam be confused with Guitar Slim, nor should Sonny for Sonny Boy Williamson. The name-dropping of blues legends is supposed to feed the myth, one supposes; instead it feeds obviousness.
For a movie that is so much about a people and its music, there's a surprising lack of music in Honeydripper. You reach the point that, when you do hear music, you pray it stays and helps ease the boredom of the labored narrative. But nope, Mable John's character croaks after one song, Clark's guitar and soft tenor come too little and too late, and even Keb' Mo' (as the blind guitarist) barely gets his turn.
It makes you wanna walk out the Honeydripper, and see what's happening next door. Surely a coin in the jukebox is a better deal than this.