Honeydripper Review

Alabama, 1950. Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) owns the Honeydripper Lounge and faces the prospect of its going under. In an effort to draw the crowds, Tyrone announces a one-night-only gig featuring the famous guitarist Guitar Sam. Meanwhile, Sonny Blake (Gary Clark Jr) arrives in town with few possessions except his guitar. Turned down by Tyrone for a spot at the Honeydripper, Sonny is arrested by Sheriff Pugh (Stacy Keach) for vagrancy and put to work in the cotton fields. But then Guitar Sam fails to show up...

Honeydripper won the Best Screenplay Award at San Sebastian in 2007. I emphasise this up front because this is very much a writer's film. It's two hours of luxuriating in a large group of characters (ably incarnated by a mostly black cast) and listening to them speak, with a plot making its leisurely way in their wake. Like many of Sayles's films, it's an ensemble piece that's particularly concerned with depicting a community rather than the actions of individuals. That's not to say that John Sayles can't direct a film – he certainly can, and I've defended his ability in previous reviews of his work on this site. However, his style tends towards the self-effacing, and is primarily in service of the script and the cast rather than being an end in itself. This is a film which depicts a slowly-paced time, and if you're in the wrong mood for it, Honeydripper will seem very slow indeed. This is a film that depicts a country about to change, symbolised by the music played and sung during the film: beginning with hand-made acoustic-guitar blues (that's a diddley bow plucked in close up in the opening shot), to piano-based music to the electric rock 'n' roll that features during the finale. Incidentally, with the exception of Danny Glover's parts, all the music performed on screen is live. Sayles makes a brief appearance as a delivery man.

Sayles has always had the good sense to hire accomplished cinematographers (once he could afford them) throughout his career. This time, it's Dick Pope, a long way from the naturalistically-shot London settings of his work with Mike Leigh. The film has a brownish, almost sepia look to it that suits its subject matter perfectly. Mason Daring's music score is another plus.

Honeydripper is Sayles's sixteenth feature as director. While I wouldn't rank it as amongst his very best – leisurely is one thing, overlong is another – there are quite a few pleasures to be had. These are felicities of writing, of acting, of sense of place and atmosphere – but those in search of a strong storyline should look elsewhere. Sayles fans will need no persuading, but it's unlikely to convert anyone else.


Honeydripper is released as a two-disc edition by Axiom. Both DVDs are dual-layered and encoded for all regions.

The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the intended 1.85:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. Returning to 35mm (three-perf Super 35) after the Super 16mm used for his previous film Silver City, Honeydripper has a distinctive look which the DVD transfer has captured very well. This DVD looks like what I saw in the cinema a few months ago: a desaturated colour scheme that favours browns and oranges for the most part, with whites (such as the cotton in the fields) slightly blown out.

The soundtrack defaults to a 2.0 option (which plays as Dolby Prologic Surround), but there is also a 5.1 mix on the DVD. This isn't the most sonically adventurous of films, with the surrounds being used mostly for ambience, but the dialogue is clear (subtitles are available) and the music sounds very good.

John Sayles provides a commentary or, as he says at the outset, an exercise in free association. That said, he says a lot that is interesting and informative, though sometimes resorts to describing what's on screen. Aspiring filmmakers will appreciate the details of filmstock (Fuji) and the use of a digital intermediate to achieve the film's look – not forgetting Pope's lighting as well, which he doesn't.

On to Disc Two, and what follows has a caveat: I was supplied with a DVD-R checkdisc for review and some of the following I couldn't access on either of two players. This was a particular problem with the thirty-nine-minute John Sayles interview. However, producer and longtime Sayles partner Maggie Renzi is on hand to describe the process of making films independently on low budgets. Certainly things have moved on, as their first feature, Return of the Secaucus Seven, had a crew of seven while nowadays even a production like Honeydripper (around the $5 million mark) will have around a hundred people sitting down to lunch each day. Actors are on Screen Actors Guild minimum scale, and there's an atmosphere of all mucking in to help. Danny Glover discusses the social issues underlying the film, which depicts a time when racial segregation was coming to an end and integration was making its first faltering steps. Finally, Dr Mable John, a singer in real life, discusses the music in the film.

Also on the disc are the character biographies Sayles wrote for his cast, a reading by Sayles of his short story “Keeping Time”, which was the inspiration for the film, a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer. Axiom's booklet features an unsigned article, “Making History”, which relates Sayles's work to his early work experience in factories and hospitals. Sayles's work is more interested in the reactions of everymen and everywomen to historical events rather than the actions of lone heroes. Also in the booklet is the text of the short story “Keeping Time” (which can also be found in Sayles's 2004 collection Dillinger in Hollywood, chapter and credits listings.

Honeydripper is not the most essential Sayles film, but even so Axiom are to be commended for releasing it in such a comprehensive DVD package.

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Last updated: 20/07/2018 07:35:33

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