God may have given rock’n’roll to us but Alabama gave us the electric blues. The story of its genesis is one that writer and director John Sayles (Lone Star, Matewan, Silver City) sets out in his latest film treatise in search of the real history of the US.
It’s 1950 in rural Alabama. There’s cotton in the field and recruits in the army bases but no one is coming to the Honeydripper Lounge. Owned by morally circumspect pianist Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), the Honeydripper is bankrupt and Tyrone is deep in debt to everyone. Then his sidekick Maceo (Charles S Dutton) comes up with a plan: hire famous electric guitar player Guitar Sam to come and play a gig and all the young ones will appear. The trouble is getting the man they think is the legendary guitar player to turn up and play on the day without being arrested by the racist sheriff (Stacy Keach).
Master storyteller Sayles’ new film is a benign and jolly tale about one ageing playboy’s attempts to save his ass from prison. The joy, as always with his work, is in the language, the turn of phrase, the monologues invested with the bravado and intelligence that in reality most of us so deeply lack. Sayles’ biggest challenge here is to catch the cadence of the southern dialect at a time of racial discrimination and agricultural depression (the 1950 boll weevil infestation led tens of thousands of African Americans to seek out opportunities in northern cities).
Sayles is more than up to the task and his dialogue, as seamlessly performed by this consummate cast, is a joy while he uses a tall tale scenario to portray a forgotten history of a remarkable musical form. Honeydripper puts one in mind of Preston Sturges’ depression era farces, or the early less urbanised fiction of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. Like all Sayles’ films Honeydripper is too long and has too many characters but his ability to spin a good yarn remains undiminished, irreproachable, enviable and all too rare.
GFT, Glasgow, Fri 9–Thu 22 May; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 23–Thu 29 May.