Crossroads is the operative theme for John Sayle’s homage to the power and the joy of music, HONEYDRIPPER, and an apt one. It looms large in the legend of delta blues, Sayles has even included a Robert Johnson-like figure who appears mysteriously from time to time with a guitar that is like one that the Devil himself owns. Crossroads is also emblematic of the time in which the story is set – 1950 Alabama. Though the town of Harmony, another apt choice of name, is a backwater by any standard, change is in the air, along with the twang of a blues guitar, and gospel songs rising from revival tents, and secular spirituals echoing from jail cells.
The title refers to the Honeydripper Lounge, a failing concern on the outskirts of town run by Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis (Danny Glover), a piano man from way back who hasn’t changed much since then. He prefers to book live music than play his jukebox, and his live music is Bertha Mae (Mabel John), a chanteuse whose heyday was 30 years before. She’s brilliant, belting out the blues with a perfect marcel and an impeccably beaded gown from the 20s, but she doesn’t draw the crowds that the place across the way, The Ace of Spades, does with its jukebox blaring loud, contemporary music. With a bleak future in front of him, Tyrone is handed the answer to his prayers, but doesn’t quite realize it until it’s almost too late. That would be Sonny (stunningly charismatic Gary Clark, Jr), a guitarist just out of the army, riding the rails, and looking to make a name for himself. Tyrone, though, is caught up in booking a one-night stand with a star on the club circuit, pinning his hopes on a big enough draw to pay his debts, and redeem himself in his own eyes with his wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton). For her part, she’s more concerned over the spiritual worthiness of her own soul, and getting her daughter, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta), a girl as beautiful and fragile as the name implies, the tuition money for beauty school and a life better than the one she has made for herself.
HONEYDRIPPER is peopled with indelible characters brought to life with effortless skill. Maceo (Charles S Dutton), Tyrone’s sidekick and employee, full of unvarnished, untutored wisdom about the ways of men and women, skirting with a nimble grace that belies his girth, the treacherous advances of Nadine (Davenia McFadden), a woman of large appetites and mercurial moods, and the unwritten rules of his place in the Jim Crow south. When he expounds on the specifics of what happened to Nadine’s last boyfriend, it is both a cautionary tale par excellence, and a wildly funny yet terrifying insight into the power plays and bubbling hormones that fuel the battle of the sexes. Glover, in the less ebullient role, is nonetheless equally captivating. His own musings about life show a history of swallowing disappointments that leave caustic traces of bitterness behind. Yet in a brilliantly written and played monologue, he speculates on the first African-American to play a piano back in slavery times, how the music in him was so potent, so insistent, that he risked the master’s displeasure to try his own hand at the strange instrument.
Sayles is more interested in exploring the texture of a time in transition than exposing the ills of that time, but neither does he sell them short. While the sheriff of the piece (Stacy Keach) is the stereotypical paunchy good-old-boy with a hankering for Delilah’s fried chicken sanwiches, he is not the stereotypical sociopath bent on overtly subjugating the African-Americans under his control with sadistic displays of physical abuse. Yet, the potential for violence is inherent and completely understood by all parties. The tipsy socialite (Mary Steenburgen) for whom Delilah works is well-meaning, kind-hearted, and more concerned about the social boundaries between her maid and herself, than the racial ones, perhaps because of her acute and resentful awareness of the social distinctions with which her fellow socialites view her, or rather look down their collective noses at her. The same sorts of distinctions come in for their own scrutiny in the African-American community, with slick city types on the lam from trouble in Memphis running afoul of migrant workers who have never been far from a cotton field.
The result makes HONEYDRIPPER like a rich and complex novel rendered as a visual experience that is equally rich and as unabashedly poetic in its images as Sayles is with his metaphors. It is a hair too lovely to be taken literally, but too emotionally engrossing to be taken as anything less than true.