Has John Sayles finally lost his mojo? How anyone could take a subject like the moment the Delta blues went electric and suck the joy and fury out of it is anybody's guess, but the talky, dull "Honeydripper" represents playwriting rather than filmmaking. And didactic playwriting at that.
Sayles has always been a didact, of course, with humanitarian lessons and progressive urgings to impart for our improvement. He's our own Ken Loach, with a better ear and a worse eye. Historically, Sayles's implicit moralizing has been more than offset by his love of storytelling, his knack for attracting good actors, and the intriguing pockets of Americana he chooses for subjects: the Chicago Black Sox ("Eight Men Out"), the labor wars of the 1930s ("Matewan"), an African-American E.T. in New York ("The Brother From Another Planet").
Or, as is the case in recent years, he'll simply create a world and stuff it with characters going at one another: Texas in "Lone Star," an unnamed metropolis in "City of Hope," Florida in "Sunshine State," a Colorado election in "Silver City." The first in this mini-genre was his best; the last his most contrived.
"Honeydripper" has all Sayles's craftsmanship and precious little of his passion. The film's set in rural Alabama in 1950, mostly at the roadhouse of the title. The Honeydripper is run by Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis (Danny Glover), a piano player with murder in his past and creditors, if not hellhounds, on his trail. The Ace of Spades across the way has a jukebox pumping out Chicago R&B to attract the cotton pickers and the slicks, but all Pinetop has is the aging singer Bertha Mae (Mable John) and a few drunks.
Through a stroke of luck, he signs up the hot blues star Guitar Sam for an appearance that could save the Honeydripper from bankruptcy and Pinetop from gangsters. As the playdate nears, though, the electrical wiring looks dubious, the sheriff (a big, scary Stacy Keach) wants a cut, and there's a question of whether Guitar Sam will even show up.
What lengths will a man go to to save his body and his soul? It's a rich subject that "Honeydripper" mostly talks to death. Sayles surrounds Pinetop with an over-full complement of characters, all finely acted, all throwing in their two cents in long, static arias of dialogue. Charles S. Dutton plays Pinetop's partner Maceo, easygoing and capable, and Lisa Gay Hamilton is Pinetop's wife, Delilah, a former singer drawn to the revival meetings.
The couple's big-eyed 16-year-old daughter, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta), works the bar and is attracted to Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), a guitar-playing drifter who ends up on the wrong end of the sheriff's chain gang. There's Bertha Mae and her much younger husband (Vondie Curtis-Hall), a pair of rival field hands (Eric L. Abrams and Sean Patrick Thomas), Maceo's hefty love interest (Davenia McFadden), and Delilah's employer, the mayor's discreet drunk of a wife (Mary Steenburgen).
The aim is a Dickensian richness of human portraiture; the effect is clutter. It also shortchanges the time period, one of potent transition from pre-war to post-war, acoustic to electric, sharecropping to civil rights. Sayles is a gifted enough artist to leave all this fermenting in the background, but he fills the foreground with two hours of vamping toward a payoff that's painfully obvious.
Enjoyable, though. What's missing from "Honeydripper," plain and simple, is the music, and when it erupts in the final scenes, the movie at last blossoms into life. Until then we've had to get by with the real life Delta blues revivalist Keb' Mo' appearing in various scenes as Pinetop's ghostly conscience: he's a parboiled cross between Blind Willie Johnson and Jacob Marley, but he can sling a mean bottleneck.
Glover, too, keeps you watching in a role that's more nuanced and less noble than he's usually called on to play. The whole cast rises to the challenge of Sayles's ripe, wordy dialogue, but the flat camerawork and rote editing sap the lifeblood right out of the script. A movie like this should swing like the music it professes to love; "Honeydripper," by contrast, doesn't find its groove until too late. Can white men film the blues? Not this time.