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Honeydripper is an electrifying period piece about how music can bring folks together and generally save one’s soul—or at least its final 15 minutes is. The rest of the time, writer-director John Sayles’ latest is just a lot of sassy talk and scenery, with a muddily delivered mystery woven in.
The film is set in 1950 in Alabama, where Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) runs the Honeydripper Lounge with the help of his God-seeking wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), and teenage daughter, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta). The former piano man is losing customers to a nearby joint that’s embraced the jukebox, but Tyrone insists on sticking to live entertainment. He does amend his no-guitarists policy, however—an odd-seeming quirk that’s tied to said mystery—when business gets really dire, telling his regular singer, Bertha Mae (Mable John), that she can take the next Saturday off because he’s managed to book radio star Guitar Sam. Meanwhile, another young guitarist, Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), arrives in town looking for work, but Tyrone dismisses him and his crazy electric ax as no good (guitar-playing isn’t a skill but an “infliction,” he tells China Doll). Soon the truly no-good sheriff (Stacy Keach, playing a caricature) arrests Sonny for vagrancy and sets him to cotton-pickin’ on a veritable chain gang.
Unless you can’t get enough of characters such as a blind-but-all-knowing guitarist, Sayles’ script shows off his ear for dialect and offers little more. Subplots about Delilah’s hesitation to officially be saved at her evangelical church, tension between a couple of prisoners/slaves, and Tyrone’s big secret feel like wisps from another movie instead of legs for this one to stand on. For nearly two hours, the story is mostly driven by the characters’ anticipation of Guitar Sam’s performance and how it’s going to save the Honeydripper. All the chatter might have been more tolerable if it weren’t coming mostly from Glover, who gives a weird, mealy-mouthed performance that’s reminiscent of Robert Duvall circa Assassination Tango.
The film is beautiful to look at, however, with outdoor shots of rural Alabama especially popping with an orange-gold glow and the good-looking characters, poor as they may be, often dressed in their Sunday best. And its last moments are jubilant, though they’re also bittersweet: As terrific R&B plays and townspeople usually down on their luck just get down for a change, Honeydripper feels like a triumph. But it’s also a reminder of what Sayles might have done with the rest of its run time instead of talking you to sleep.