July 8, 2008
Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½
Politically progressive, consistently independent writer/director John Sayles takes his sweet time with Honeydripper, which has a rather slight story and still runs over the two-hour mark. Fortunately, the operative word here is "sweet" -- as in gentle, satisfying and dulcet, rather than sugary or saccharine. This sweetness comes in so many forms--from the wonderfully genuine performances in the redolent tale Sayles tells, to the music that weaves it way--insinuating, sexy, and finally charmingly explosive--throughout the film. It's especially apparent in some of Sayles' writing. Watch for the exquisite scene in which a character muses about how the first slave to learn piano-playing might have managed this: It's thoughtful, specific, wonderfully imagined and executed.
It is also great to see the splendid Danny Glover in one of his best roles to date, as the owner of the down-on-its-luck music club that carries the film's name. Here, Glover anchors a worthwhile, independent labor-of-love rather than giving unmerited decency to a crappy franchise (the Lethal Weapon series). Likewise, Lisa Gay Hamilton (Nine Lives) and Charles Dutton bring the same weight and strength to their roles as Glover's wife and best friend. A stunningly beautiful young actress, new to me, is Yaya DaCosta, who plays the couple's daughter China Doll. What a find is Ms DaCosta, who adds her own brand of sweetness, melded with a low-key strength, to the proceedings. And, as the young man with a special guitar, who shows up in town at just the right time, newcomer Gary Clark Jr. makes a quietly effective debut. Beginning at whisper level, by the finale he has opened up full-force, and yet remains charmingly believable rather than going for the overbearing "knockout hit" we've grown so used to in most stories of this ilk. In the large ensemble cast, a word must also be said for Vondie Curtis-Hall, who brings to his unusual role--the younger companion of an elderly woman singer at the club--surprising depth and respect. (The woman is played by the fragile-looking/solid-singing Mabel John, whose rendition of "No Matter How She Done It" is as classy as it is sexy.)
Sayles' real achievement in Honeydripper is taking his slight story and, by virtue of its time and place, rendering it important historically and musically. The time is 1950 -- the start of the Korean conflict and of something soon to be known as rock-and-roll. Add some early stirrings of the possibility of civil rights, and, with certain filmmakers, the stage would be set for a "perfect storm" of change. For Sayles, however, it's more of a perfect misting, as he simply refuses to push things. The 50s were a time of repression for American Blacks (for Whites, too, though we barely knew it at the time, and ours paled by comparison). In the little community Sayles has named Harmony, that state of being is arrived at by obeying the town Sheriff (well played by Stacy Keach), who is given to arresting Blacks on trumped-up charges so he can farm them out to pick the cotton crop for the landowners. The manner in which Glover's character comes to terms with Keach, with himself, and with some shady Black businessmen trying to take over his club is particularly disciplined and full of necessary compromise. Though Sayles' story is simple, little here is simplistic. Sadly, Honeydripper was one of the filmmaker's least commercially successful ventures. Artistically, it's one of his strongest.
(If you have time, watch the interviews with Sayles, Glover, Dutton and producer Maggie Renzi for additional--and interesting--background.)
Posted by cphillips at July 8, 2008 12:04 PM