Where blues and rock meet

February 8, 2008

AT ITS best, rock 'n' roll can be an audacious, liberating thing. Director John Sayles clearly understands the power of such music, setting the birth of rock, and its intersection with the blues, at the heart of his new film, Honeydripper.

Set in 1950, the film tells the story of Pinetop Purvis (Danny Glover), a one-time piano player and the owner of the Honeydripper Lounge, a ramshackle Alabama blues club that is dying for lack of customers--most of whom have jumped ship for a rowdier juke joint.

Purvis decides to gamble everything on a last desperate chance--begging borrowing and stealing enough to hold a show featuring "Guitar Sam," a new electric guitar sensation from New Orleans. When Sam doesn't show, Purvis is forced to take increasingly desperate risks--including springing Sonny, a drifter-musician (played by real-life guitar impresario Gary Clark Jr.) from the clutches of a racist white sheriff, so that he can stand in.

The sheriff has arrested Sonny for the "crime" of vagrancy, with the punishment set as picking cotton--in fields conveniently owned by the local judge (with a kickback to be paid to the sheriff). As in many of Sayles' best films, an examination of race and racism is at the heart of the story. As Sonny remarks getting off the train, the town's name, Harmony, makes it sound "like a good place for a musician."

Review: Movies

Honeydripper, written and directed by John Sayles, starring Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Charles S. Dutton.

"The only night I've ever been in jail was in a town called Liberty," is the dry response he receives. But the tensions in the film aren't only between Black and white (as in Purvis' remark that the Korean war is about "Black folks killing yellow folks to keep white folks happy"). They're also between two generations--one rooted in the blues, and one in rock 'n' roll.

While some critics, such as the New York Times' A.O. Scott, have damned Honeydripper with the faint praise of being too "on the nose" politically (whatever that means), they overlook the brilliant way Sayles uses the music as if it were another character in the ensemble cast.

In jail, for instance, Sonny sings a haunting rendition of Lead Belly's "Midnight Special" ("Ain't no food upon the table/And no fork up in the pan/But you better not complain, boy/You get in trouble with the man"). And rapper Keb' Mo' puts in a turn as a blind bluesman named Possum--who sings the blues classic "Stag-o-lee" (about a gambling game that turns to murder) to accompany a flashback to Purvis' own troubled past--a past that other characters seem destined to repeat.

Sayles, who also co-wrote several of the film's original music numbers, clearly has a deep affection for and understanding of classic rock and the blues. He captures the wonder and danger that music can inspire, as in a standout scene in which Purvis imagines the emotions that the first slave who transgressed by playing a white master's piano must have felt.

Music itself is something of a metaphor for Sayles' style of filmmaking. As he recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "I don't think rock 'n' roll is going to come and save us like it does for his character, but there is that thing about being independent that you're also out there on a limb and you kind of have to start from scratch an awful lot."

Or, as the movie makes clear, you can't have rock and roll without some blues along the way.

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