Honeydripper John Sayles

Honeydripper John Sayles
It’s been a depressingly long while since one-time indie wunderkind John Sayles has roiled any waters beyond his own clannish film festival pond. And Honeydripper, a glossy exercise in presumption and cultural carpetbaggery masquerading as rock’n’roll creation myth, is unlikely to make any wider ripples.

Sayles’s sputtering narrative engine is Pinetop Purvis (a too world-weary to draw breath Danny Glover), an erstwhile itinerant piano man making a desperate stand with his Honeydripper Lounge, a last redoubt of authentic, acoustic (read: "morally pure”) blues in the hardscrabble rural South. In hock to landlord and suppliers, and haemorrhaging business to newer, trendier competitors Pinetop, in wheezy, "let’s put on a show” fashion, Purvis throws up a Hail Mary by blowing his wad on imported hotshot New Orleans axe man Guitar Sam.

When Guitar Sam succumbs to a bad case of "fortuitous plot complication,” Pinetop turns to Sonny, a young drifter with a weirdly square, homemade electric guitar. (Though this is a good decade after Les Paul plugged in, the locals are as bemused by this as Cro-Magnons around a monolith.)

True to the time, if not the audience’s thirst for a Marty McFly moment of thunderous zeitgeist realignment, Sonny’s licks aren’t all that scorching. Still, there is much amazement, and obligatory crosscutting with the gospel choir down the road (competing for souls, get it?), that Pinetop lives to vend booze another day. (Lost in the shuffle are Pinetop’s purist principles, thrown under the bus at the first whiff of the long green.)

Sayles relies unforgivably on stock types to populate his 1950 Alabama — Stacy Keach’s corrupt sheriff is particularly obvious — and burdens them only with the kind of genteel, idealised poverty (viz. Malcolm X’s Harlem) that doesn’t soil the clothes or the complexion. And his thesis, something about the inevitability of change, is hammered home with thudding monotony.

A bigger problem is Gary Clark Jr., a legitimate blues prodigy but rookie actor. As Sonny, he lacks the charisma to inhabit either the Elmer Gantry or the Chuck Berry side of his role, robbing the would-be ecstatic third act of its oomph.

Superficial, schematic and overlong at 123 minutes, Honeydripper feels like a well-intentioned genre exercise without a natural constituency. On the plus side, however: no Robert Plant. (Seville)