Because John Sayles specifically sets his latest film, "Honeydripper," in rural Alabama in the year 1950, one would assume the socially conscious writer-director means to explore racial tensions in the South, by focusing on the titular bar run by Danny Glover's Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis. But black-white relations soon fade to background noise levels, evidenced directly only in a few brief scenes, as when the town sheriff (Stacy Keach) routinely rounds up random African-American men on trumped-up charges to work in the cotton fields, or in a strained sequence between Tyrone's wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton as Delilah) and employer "Miss Amanda" (Mary Steenburgen), which shows the latter oddly sympathetic and desperate to connect with the silverware-shining former even as she betrays her ignorance by presenting a hand-me-down for Delilah's daughter -- a dress about ten years too small.
Loaded as these peripheral details may be, they slowly fall by the wayside to reveal an unexpectedly light "hey kids, let's put on a show!" narrative, albeit one infused with as great a sense of potential loss and despair as joyousness. Glover's stirring performance, as a man weathered by past mistakes and presently at the precipice of disaster, helps conjure an air of melancholy that tempers the classic trajectory's usual ecstatic, cathartic outburst. As indicated by the echoing emptiness of the uncrowded bar where aging blues singer Bertha Mae (Dr. Mable John) croons on a Saturday night, Tyrone's business verges on nonexistence. Losing out to the neighboring competition, which nightly attracts the coveted youthful demographic, Tyrone decides to go for broke by hiring radio sensation "Guitar Sam" to pack 'em in and play the Honeydripper for one night only. Cue a mishap because of which means the man never makes it to town, and the spontaneous stopover by an electric guitar-toting stranger named Sonny (Gary Clark, Jr.).
Sayles conveys the importance of music in structuring and animating the lives of the African-American community in the fittingly named town of Harmony, whether of the variety provided by the dueling bars, church gospels, or town troubadour. His interest lies in microcosmically capturing the transitional moment when rock 'n roll burst onto the scene; Bertha Mae's death later on--right before Sonny gets his big chance--signals the end of an era. And, just as Tyrone puts everything on the line for the big show, so does Sayles: "Honeydripper" so slowly builds up to its climax--the excitement only begins as the townsfolk doll up and descend upon the club en masse, the vivid colors of the weekend-best clothing providing a lovely visual jolt--that when Sonny finally plays, the film too feels like it has suddenly, literally, gone electric.
Sadly, "Honeydripper" ends just as it gets going. It never quite finds its rhythm; the slow and steady pacing often goes slack--dragged down by clunky dialogue and strange, stylistic contortions which denote Tyrone's flashbacks--and the lethargy only lifts during musical interludes too few and far between to sustain any momentum. Like much of Sayles's recent output, the ensemble outing doesn't take shape despite an interesting premise. Unforgivably, the sheriff's racist behavior gets refitted into crotchety cuddliness by the feel-good ending, which finds him hanging out at the Honeydripper and feasting on Delilah's fried chicken. And the troubadour, who happens to be blind and, hence, the designated seer, spouts cliches like, "You gonna have to save your own self," and is himself rendered a convention of storytelling by the film's discordantly fanciful conclusion in which (spoiler?) he maddeningly gets relegated to a figment of Tyrone's imagination. As cop-outs go, this is second only to the "it was all a dream" excuse --we deserve better from a thoughtful filmmaker like Sayles.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]