In the small town of Harmony, Ala., circa 1950, musician-turned-bar owner Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Danny Glover) faces the loss of his beloved Honeydripper night spot. The live music he’s booking is too square for most of the local folk, he hasn’t brought in enough money to pay for liquor, and he’s being squeezed by a local hoodlum (Vondie Curtis Hall) who’s threatening to take over the property unless Pine Top comes up with the back rent. And if that’s not enough, he’s also attracted the unwelcome attention of the local sheriff (Stacy Keach) who wants his cut of the action as well. When Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), an itinerant and very talented musician, lands in town, Pine Top decides to pass him off as the one and only legendary Guitar Sam, whom no one in Harmony has ever seen perform, in hopes of staving off the inevitable.
After Sayles’ disappointingly obvious Silver City, which was full of cardboard characters, it’s a relief to view the rich palette with which he paints the folks of Harmony. At first, the scheming Glover and Charles S. Dutton, as the sidekick who likes to challenge Pine Top, also seem like types, but they and the film grow on one as Sayles lays out his modest and smart look at a changing environment, not so much in terms of racial attitudes and realities but musically, as a rougher sound, heralding the imminent onset of rock music, begins to make its presence felt.
Honeydripper occasionally turns preachy—Pine Top’s comment that the Korean War is “black folk fighting yellow folk for the benefit of white folk” is straight out of the Vietnam era, nearly 20 years down the line, and hence not in the least believable—and it could use a little less stereotyping of its white characters, such as Keach’s sheriff, who may as well be twirling a mustache. But mostly, this likable, laidback movie goes down well, a pleasant dash of Southern Comfort with some great tunes mixed into the batch.
Cast: Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Gary Clark Jr., Keb’ Mo’, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Stacy Keach
Director/Screenwriter: John Sayles
Producer: Maggie Renzi
Rating: PG-13 for brief violence and some suggestive material
Running time: 120 min.
Release date: December 28, 2007 ltd.
Reviewed: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival