Indie stalwart John Sayles' nostalgic Southern period piece Honeydripper delights the viewer with its spirited exuberance. Though it might seem an obvious stroke for a musical drama to exude joy, Sayles counterintuitively resists overwhelming the audience with melodic rapture throughout this film. The joy here exists and thrives on a sub-musical level; it's the raw, unfettered pleasure of veteran movie lover Sayles cutting loose and immersing himself in the rapture of his craft, of the storytelling itself that brings him a peerless high.
This film represents Sayles's 16th feature, and demonstrates moviemaking's status as a kind of relaxed, natural groove for him, like Paul McCartney sliding his fingers up and down the piano keys or Michael Jordan letting a basketball roll from his hands. With script structure and direction of actors old hat for Sayles, he simply plunges into a fascinating multi-stranded narrative and the evocation of a time and milieu so vivid that we never once question the authenticity of the details. Honeydripper unfolds in rural Alabama, circa 1950, but the writer/director resists the ugly and garish tendency in recent movies to paint the postwar American South as gothically crude or grotesque in the "Ode to Billie Joe" vein. Quite the opposite is true here; every frame radiates Sayles's deep-rooted adoration of the South, its people and music -- and even his fascination with the way its Southern preachers pull their Christian audiences into a kind of lingering mesmeric state with sing-songish sermonic chants.
Sayles renders the dark side of the pre-Civil Rights South consistently visible as well, but a much lesser film would waylay the narrative with an irreversible trip into the wiles of racism, and could easily grow ham-handed and obvious. In a strange and unexpected way -- for the first hour or so of this picture -- the "South" that is visible here seems to wax even more heartbreaking, for we witness characters (such as Danny Glover's blues pianist Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis, and Charles S. Dutton's roadhouse proprietor Maceo) who seem to have recognized and acknowledged the helplessness of the racial situation through their very passivity. (Sayles conveys much of the underlying menace simply with the enlistment of the overweight Stacy Keach, who holds his own as an embittered, bigoted redneck sheriff and need only appear onscreen a handful of times to convey an aura of self-loathing hostility.) We initially cringe at the black characters' seeming acceptance of offhanded use of racial epithets in white conversation, and the constant hint of violence at the hands of white characters. In a wonderful twist, though, the central narrative -- which involves Purvis' failing juke joint, and his last-ditch attempt to cook up a scheme to save the place -- does its part by revealing the extent to which Southern music functioned as a spiritually driven stand against white oppression, an idea increasingly evident as the picture rolls on (though particularly in the concluding sequence). Music, in this film, equals quiet and stoic rebellion -- an idea perhaps never conveyed so lyrically in a motion picture, drawn out with the director's quiet, steady hand.
The picture isn't perfect, and it does buckle beneath the weight of an overarching flaw: for a musical drama, the music itself feels melodically wispy and insubstantial even as it serves the said thematic purpose. This could be a product of Sayles's trademark low budget; in lieu of purchasing the rights to old standards, the credits reveal that he co-authored many of the picture's original tunes himself. Perhaps that's why the actual songs scarcely resemble genre music and run together as a kind of shapeless blur in one's mind. (The one gospel tune sounds brazenly inauthentic -- a generically inoffensive spiritual number with the spiritual references blurred; similarly, the final number, "China Doll," sounds as if Sayles composed it in about two minutes, and in the process bastardized four decades of second-rate rockabilly tunes.) Moreover, the central narrative strand may risk wearing thin through repetition; one continually senses Sayles's inclination to push further, to deepen and enrich each of his subplots with a novel-like structure. That's an inclination he should have heeded; an extra hour or so -- affording the director with the time and energy to expand his focus, indulging his instincts -- would have helped enormously. At the same time, this narrative weakness may not be as much of a criticism as it initially seems. Such supporting players as Mary Steenburgen and the extraordinary Dr. Mable John convey almost limitless character depth with only a scant few minutes of screen time, and compensate tremendously for the story's somewhat narrow scope.
The cast as a whole does particularly impressive work here, and feels so consistent from one performer to another that it remains difficult to single any one out -- with one exception. Admirably drawing attention away from old pros Glover and Dutton is neophyte actress YaYa DaCosta, playing Purvis' daughter. Her character, China Doll, is aptly named; a delicate and fragile girl with half-dollar eyes, finely chiseled facial features, and lithe, supple bone structure, she conveys 17 years of societal hardship simply through her vulnerable presence and a paucity of dialogue. (It isn't difficult to understand how one of the film's key characters, guitarist Sonny Blake, could fall instantly in love with her.)
As mentioned, Honeydripper provides its share of immense rewards. It isn't often that a film immerses us, headfirst, in the rapturous bliss of movie storytelling and the transcendent pleasure of witnessing a first-rate ensemble of character actors working at full steam. This, of course, makes it doubly unfortunate that the picture appears to have been buried with such limited distribution, and that most audiences actually seem unaware of the film's existence. Despite its handful of minor flaws, Honeydripper constitutes a finely spun, gentle film -- an optimistic fable in which all of the major characters emerge victorious and the audience leaves in a state of sweet, inescapable bliss.
Honeydripper on AllMovie