Harmony, Ala., circa 1950, is a lot like Anyplace U.S.A. in 2008. The economy is rocky (foreclosure men are circling the Honeydripper, the only black bar in town), newfangled gadgets are upsetting the old way of doing things (jukeboxes threaten to exterminate live entertainers) and the culture is in peril (electrified guitars and rock music are beginning to supplant traditional blues).
That's the setting for John Sayles' "Honeydripper," a musical period piece that manages to be lighthearted and socially conscious. Against a backdrop of sublime rhythm and blues, Danny Glover brings worried gravity to the role of Pinetop Purvis, proprietor of the fading Honeydripper saloon. Pinetop launches one last desperate promotion, plastering Harmony with handbills for an appearance by New Orleans sensation Guitar Sam.
You can guess that the performer won't show, but the sophisticated twist Sayles puts on the last-minute substitute is a welcome surprise. He knows how to deliver a satisfying resolution without pandering.
The script is filled with fresh observations about Southern life in that era: cotton pickers liked to start early because the morning dew made their loads heavier at the pay-out scale. There's a warm glow of nostalgia for simpler times here, alongside recognition that the good old days had ugly problems. Stacy Keach registers powerfully as a racist sheriff with a talent for trumping up nonsense charges against anyone who crosses him, jailing one hapless fellow for "gawkery with intent to mope."
Sayles balances his social consciousness against a tone of poetic realism, and the cast delivers splendid work. Sayles has collected a gallery of excellent black acting talent, from old pro Charles S. Dutton as Pinetop's sly right-hand man to reality TV star Yaya DaCosta ("America's Next Top Model") as a delicate ingenue. There's even singer/songwriter Keb' Mo' as one of those blind street-corner musicians who serves as a one-man Greek chorus in stories like this.
Sayles' 16th film as a writer/director is one of his most enjoyable ever, a reminder of the way a good song or a well-told story can help us all through troubling times.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186