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Blues And Soul, Courtesy Of John Sayles
on 20 December 2012
Independent film-maker John Sayles is a classic example of someone whose talent has been essentially overlooked by Hollywood's money-making machine, and who struggles to secure the funding for his series of (invariably) intelligent, perceptive, expertly constructed and relevant films. Sayles has tackled a wide range of (frequently international) social and human issues, including labour relations, human isolation, sports match-fixing, imperialist war, political corruption and modern urban malaise in films such as Lone Star, Matewan, City Of Hope, Limbo, Amigo, Men With Guns and Eight Men Out. 2007's Honeydripper fits neatly into Sayles' body of work, being a study of post-WW2 human and racial tensions in 1950s southern USA, whilst also showcasing the vibrant rhythm and blues music of the era.
As is evidenced by Sayles' director's commentary and the various interviews included as DVD extras, one thing always very noticeable about any Sayles film is the meticulous subject research that underpins his film-making. Here, as well as making extensive use of home-grown acting talent from Alabama (where the film was shot), Sayles captures the atmosphere of the pre-Korean war, institutionally racist, religiously devout, small-town society brilliantly. This is a society where 'coloreds' have their own shop entrances, and where negroes seeking work are routinely rounded up, slung in jail and forced to work the cotton fields. At the centre of Sayles' film is Tyrone 'Pine Top' Purvis (in the best film performance I have seen from Danny Glover), an erstwhile musician with a troubled past, now struggling to make ends meet running his Honeydripper bar/club, his wife Delilah (an outstanding Lisa Gay Hamilton), a domestic help, suffering from a bout of religious ambivalence, and Delilah's daughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta), the (rather reluctant) subject of local boys' attentions. In order to prevent forced closure of his club by malevolent rent-collectors, Purvis hits on the idea of bringing New Orleans guitar hero Guitar Sam to town, even if the venture does require him to pilfer liquor from a neighbouring club and to steal from his wife's savings (originally destined for China Doll's beauty therapist training). When the musician doesn't show at the railway station, Purvis then has to persuade (or bribe) local Sheriff Pugh (a superbly brooding and lascivious Stacey Keach) to free wandering musician Sonny Blake (Gary Clark, Jr.), in order for the planned gig to go ahead.
Whilst the 'unknown artist makes good and saves the day' plot-line is, of course, a well-trodden one, Sayles conjures up something quite special, via a series of remarkably naturalistic acting performances, an intelligent script, a brilliantly evocative (Nitszchean almost) score by Mason Daring and some impressive cinematography courtesy of Mike Leigh's regular DoP, Dick Pope. Particularly evocative are the scenes in the local cotton fields, those of youngsters improvising their attempts at playing the blues, the exhilarating live performance from Blake and the use of the local blind guitarist Possum (played by blues musician Keb' Mo'), who haunts the town as its ethereal prophet (this latter a sign of Sayles' genius touch).
Whilst, for me, the last 30 minutes or so (the club gig excepted) become more routine, Sayles' film is still another compellingly made entry in the pantheon of work of one of the most outstanding American film-makers of the last 30 years.