John Sayles’ latest film, “Honeydripper” - his 16th, if you’re keeping track - is set in 1950 Alabama, in a little town emblematic of the big changes happening all around. On an Army base, soldiers black and white train and bunk together, while downtown the signs of segregation are still literally everywhere, as in “Whites Only” and “Coloreds Only.”
But it’s not just race relations that are in transition in “Honeydripper,” which stars Charles S. Dutton, Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and Mary Steenburgen.
Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yaya DaCosta, Charles S. Dutton, Vondie Curtis Hall, Gary Clark Jr., Stacy Keach, Nagee Clay, Arthur Lee Williams, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Davenia McFadden, Daryl Edwards, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kel Mitchell, Keb' Mo'
(Emerging Pictures; US theatrical: 28 Dec 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 25 Apr 2008 (Limited release); 2007)
It’s music: rural blues and gospel, R&B and big band, are giving way to something new: rock `a’ roll. Gary Clark Jr., an Austin, Texas, guitar hero, makes his screen debut playing an itinerant musician whose big break comes in an act of imposture. A desperate club owner (Glover) has booked the legendary “Guitar Sam” for a Saturday night gig, but Sam doesn’t show, and the club owner gets Clark’s character, a kid with a hand-built electric guitar, to do the show posing as Guitar Sam.
“I had written a short story called `Keeping Time’ in 1993 that’s in my last collection, `Dillinger in Hollywood,’” says Sayles, who, in addition to making his own movies, has found time to publish short stories and novels, and ply a very decent trade as a screenwriter for hire. (His latest credit: “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” due out Feb. 14.)
“One of the characters is this old janitor whose hands are all curled up with arthritis, who comes over and says, `I used to be Guitar Slim,’ ” Sayles explains. “And Guitar Slim was known to miss gigs, he had a big hit in New Orleans, but before rock videos and album covers nobody knew what you looked like unless they’d seen you in person, and so there were all these young guys who could play guitar who were told by their club owner, `Tonight you’re Guitar Slim.’ So B.B. King, Albert King, all these guys have stories about performing as somebody else early in their career. . . .
“And that stuck in my mind. I thought, it’d be interesting to make a movie about that old guy, back when that happened.”
The other thing that got Sayles thinking was the moment when the solid-body electric guitar first exploded on the pop music landscape.
“Les Paul had been talking about it, and developing it for years, and then all of a sudden, he just said, `Here it is,’ and somebody decided to manufacture it,” Sayles says. “Within a year every guitar player who played any kind of rock or rhythm-and-blues was playing electric guitar, and then the next year the electric bass came in, and all those guys carrying huge upright basses said, `Hallelujah, we can jump in the van with everybody else.’
“And I started thinking about what that must have been like for the players. ... There was this little war, over four or five years, between the piano and the guitar, and the guitar won. And pretty soon the piano was out of rock `n’ roll. It had been the lead instrument for so long, and now the guitar, which was cheaper and more portable, and with an amplifier now had more firepower, just pushed it to the side.”
Maggie Renzi, Sayles’ longtime creative partner, producer and companion (the two live north of New York City), says that “Honeydripper’s” focus on crossroads, on moments of transition like the advent of the electric guitar, “continues to work as a metaphor for us.”
That is, after 28 years of being in independent films - Renzi wore multiple hats on Sayles’ 1980 debut, “Return of the Secaucus Seven” - the couple are learning to adapt to new currents in filmmaking: DIY digital, YouTube, the consolidation of the major studios, and so on.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to move with the times, but still stay loyal to the things that we believe in,” says Renzi. “The landscape has seriously changed. And it’s not about digital. It’s about money. And it’s about the corporations.”
Sayles, who makes a cameo in “Honeydripper,” nods in agreement.
“The corporate entities that own the studios are trying to figure out how, if we download straight from the brain of the filmmaker into digital delivery in your living room - well, how are they going to get money back from that?” jokes Sayles, who, as a member of the Writers Guild of America, is on strike against those media conglomerates right now.
Oddly, after years of praise from critics and the public for films as thematically diverse but keenly observed as “Brother From Another Planet,” “Eight Men Out,” “Matewan,” “The Secret of Roan Inish” and “Sunshine State” - and two screenwriting Oscar nominations, for “Passion Fish” and “Lone Star” - Sayles and Renzi have found it increasingly difficult to get backing for their movies. Both 2004’s “Silver City,” which starred Chris Cooper and Richard Dreyfuss, and “Honeydripper,” with a budget of just over $5 million, were self-financed.
Renzi, for one, is thinking of following another independent-minded American moviemaker, Woody Allen, across the Atlantic. Funding would be more readily available in Europe, she believes, and there’s a new talent pool to be tapped.
“There was just this retrospective of all 16 of John’s films at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in Greece,” she says, “and we were treated like artists of real importance. The subject of box office didn’t come up. ...
“So, if John is willing to work with European actors and shoot it there ... well, I’m going to investigate. The fact is that we can’t get money in this country, not even with this (“Honeydripper”) cast or the cast of Silver City. ... There are loads of European actors who would be delighted to work with John, as there have been in Mexico and Ireland.”