You sittin’ down wondrin’
What it’s all about.
If you ain’t got no money,
They going to put you out.
— Lil Green, “Why Don’t You Do Right? (Get Me Some Money, Too!)”
Time is my name.
— Time Trenier (Eddie Shaw)
“You gonna have to save your own self.” Guitar in hand, the blind musician Possum (Keb’ Mo’) offers advice to Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Danny Glover), currently in deep trouble, with money owed and doubts about his future in Harmony, Alabama. Tyrone shrugs off the deeper significance of Possum’s observation, focusing instead on an immanent concept of self: he’s got to save his business, that is, the Honeydripper Lounge.
Set in the Jim Crow South, John Sayles’ Honeydripper is less a conventional film than a bluesy collaboration — slow-moving and contemplative, wily and laced through with cultural nuances. About to lose his club to gangsters — a conventional menace, embodied with careeny grace by Vondie Curtis Hall and Arthur Lee Williams — Tyrone imagines he’ll be saved by the arrival of the legendary Guitar Sam. As he waits, possibilities start to close off sequentially: the whiskey wagon (manned by Sayles) has stopped selling on credit, Sheriff Pugh (Stacy Keach) is looking to cement his hold on the local economy, and Tyrone’s wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) is spending her evenings with “bible thumpers,” losing faith in her man as she finds it elsewhere.
Still, Tyrone is hustling, hoping a last crazy scheme will get him over. When he stumbles on a savior of sorts, a young, untested, itinerant guitarist named Sonny Blake (Gary Clark, Jr.), Tyrone decides to pass him off as Guitar Sam, reportedly sick in the hospital: “You know music folks,” offers the bearer of this bad news, “Whatever he was doing, probably doing too much of it.” Tyrone does know music folks, being a piano man himself, and he’s done too much of everything, during his “big bad days on the road.” Now he looks tired, simultaneously buoyed and burdened by memories of his reckless, passionate youth.
Tyrone’s maneuverings toward salvation by music are layered into multiple local intrigues. In this, the film takes up generic themes, working them through new sorts of rhythms, offset by brief surprise for characters who seem headed down very familiar roads. As stereotypical as Pugh’s bullying appears, his vulgar interests are both allusive and mundane (“I prefer dark meat,” he murmurs, describing his affection for Delilah’s fried chicken sandwiches), such that the movie doesn’t actually have to follow the usual route to make its point about monstrous sheriffs and ritual abuses.
Delilah’s own trajectory, a search for spiritual truth as performed by a tent preacher (Albert Hall), is equally subtle. Disappointed repeatedly by Tyrone and determined to look after her 17-year-old child, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta), she endures the ignorance of her employer, Miss Amanda (Mary Steenburgen), who is, in turn, not exactly the sad and nostalgic alcoholic white lady she first appears to be. As Delilah polishes silver and Miss Amanda wanders through the dining room, they remember their shared history differently; Miss Amanda offering a child’s dress for China Doll, whom she still pictures as six years old, a frozen moment that allows her to see herself young and yearning. Her loss is not so manifest as Delilah’s, but they both understand feeling lost, even if on separate planets of experience.
As the earlier generation stays still or looks back, the children push on. All the while that Tyrone and his best friend Maceo (Charles Dutton) are devising their salvation scheme, young Sonny believes in his gift. Picked up by the sheriff for “gawkery with intent to mope,” he assures his cellmates, “I’m gonna be on the radio someday. You gonna know my name.” That he imagines this future in and through his music serves as the film’s theme, pulsing beneath every conversation, embodied by Possum. Sonny’s electric guitar surprises Maceo, who translates this boxy, oddly solid contraption for Tyrone: “It don’t work unless it’s hooked up to the juice,” he explains, “The music just runs straight through the strings to the wire and out of the amplifier, which is what this thing must be.”
The older men shake their heads at such a modern gizmo, but when they hear the boy play, they’re moved. Sliding between blues and rock and back again, Sonny is them again, as well as himself. Music grants everyone in the club a way to move, to feel mobile and alive, to feel hopeful, even for instants at a time. Amid the emotional details, lovely performances, and dialogue that sounds like words people say, Honeydripper underscores the music, its magic and its materiality. In this allegory, you understand, times change and troubles stay the same.