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Monday, May 12, 2014
Written, directed and edited by John Sayles
Danny Glover: Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis
Charles S. Dutton: Maceo
Lisa Gay Hamilton: Delilah
Stacy Keach: Sherrif Pugh
Keb' Mo': Possum
Gary Clark Jr.: Sonny
This one starts with a mission statement from John Sayles, who is possibly the most talented director working in American cinema. Or rather, it starts with two impoverished black boys with scrapyard lumber and baling wire kitbashed into a noisemaker--turning a porch beam into a one-string guitar and playing bottleneck blues, or if you're uncharitable figuring out a way to make noise that could almost be music. Here's how it is, Sayles is saying with the first images in this film. If you don't have money and you're born to create you're going to make art anyway. And that's precisely what he did.
Over the credits, the setting of the film is revealed--more than a dozen black laborers pick cotton in a dusty field and on a military base a group of young recruits are running in the sweltering heat. The military base is integrated; the fields are not. The two boys walk through the fields and the base, and much farther away (night has fallen when they get there) they arrive at the Honeydripper lounge just as the titles inform the audience that it's 1950 in Alabama. Raucus R&B is being played at a crowded club packed with people and streaming with light...about a hundred yards away from the lounge that we're looking at. Inside, Pinetop Purvis is tickling the ivories while the elderly Bertha Mae (played by blues legend Mable John) sings and a blind guy plays the harmonica. It's old blues on the menu tonight and a couple of the patrons are enraptured. A couple others are playing cards and drinking while ignoring the performers. And that's everyone in the bar.
Pinetop and the singer's lover talk in hushed tones about how few people have shown up to drink and be entertained, and Maceo--the general handyman and second-in-command at the Honeydripper--wants to know why they can't fire up their jukebox and play something loud enough and more to the customers' tastes at the other lounge, and maybe try to make a little bit of money that night. This discussion gets cut off when a power drunk starts teasing the singer's boyfriend about his choice of romantic partners (Maceo: "Now, do you want to drink, Stokely, or do you want to lay out back recovering from that busted head you're about to get?"). Before anything can progress past shit-talking, Purvis' wife Delilah shows up and everyone makes an immediate course correction. It's one thing to drink liquor and listen to the blues and sass each other, but nobody wants to start a fight in front of Delilah. Who, for her part, appears to be more than a match for anyone else in the room, and fiercely religious as well.
Delilah and Tyrone go through a conversation they've probably had more than a dozen times a month; there aren't enough people buying drinks (and nobody at all is buying food) at the lounge. The young harvest hands and soldiers from the base are drinking at Toussaint's neighboring club, the Ace of Spades. They like their music loud and rambunctious and have no desire to sit around with a few aging alcoholics and listen to the blues, even as well as it's sung and played at the Honeydripper. "Maybe that's the wages of sin." "Ain't no sin happenin' here tonight, baby, and there sure as hell ain't no wages." Damn, I love Sayles' dialogue. Delilah's social activity of choice is religion; she refers to a neighbor speaking in tongues and giving herself over to God at that night's tent revival. She's waiting for her own call to give up the secular world, but hasn't done it yet and didn't go for it that night. And at the tail end of the conversation it's revealed that for all his gruff nature, Pinetop isn't a complete misanthrope. Stokely the drunk has been cut off at the other bar, and can't get any more drinks on credit. Purvis serves him because if he has to, he'll drink turpentine brewed up in the swamp at a lumber camp. For all of Delilah's talk about salvation, it seems that drinking cheap booze at the Honeydripper is considerably safer for the poor guy.
A bombshell gets dropped when the blues singer wraps up her performance for the night; Purvis tells her that she doesn't have to come in the next week because he's made other arrangements for Saturday's entertainment. Her boyfriend is instantly furious but Bertha Mae cuts him off, saying it's Pinetop's place and he can do what he wants to do with it. Which, in an instant, tells the audience why he keeps propping up the slowly failing business, and why he's willing to try something new at the expense of alienating a singer he obviously loves in order to keep his business going. From the look on Purvis' face as Bertha Mae leaves, having to tell her not to come back hurt worse than losing money for years. Just to hurt his feelings a little more, when Maceo turns the jukebox on a fuse blows within seconds and plunges the bar into darkness (mildly irritating the handful of people still in it). And because when it rains it pours, the sheriff appears in the Honeydripper's doorway as if an occult hand had placed him there just to make things more difficult.
And while the sheriff is there to scare the crap out of everyone in the bar with his mere presence, he also lets slip a little tidbit of information--Tyrone Purvis has a long standing ban on the customers starting fights in his bar. There's never been a shooting at the Honeydripper, at least partly because rumor has it that Pinetop killed a man when he was much younger. Sheriff Pugh doesn't really do anything with that information and it does appear that he had time to shake down some leads if he felt like it. What he does feel like doing is mooch a free meal from Delilah (which he can't tonight because she was at the tent revival instead of cooking at the bar) and remind everyone in the building that he rules the county. Mostly through intimidation, it would appear, but nobody has so little to lose that they're willing to risk open conflict with the law, corrupt and brutal as it happens to be.
While Bertha Mae is walking home, a new face is hitching into town. Hungry, broke, and riding boxcars to get from place to place, a guitar-toting young man makes conversation with Shack Thomas, a railroad employee who lets him crash on a cot in the depot office shed and says to use his name if he needs anything in town. It turns out that the dueling road houses are in a town called Harmony. The guitarist, Sonny, thinks that's a great omen for a musician. Shack points out that the only night he ever spent in jail was in a town called Liberty. Fans of sour smiles in conversation will find much to love about this movie.
Back at the Honeydripper, Purvis and Maceo are toting up the day's receipts. They made Tuesday money on a Saturday night, and Purvis reveals his last-ditch plan to make enough money to keep the wolves from the door and the lights on at the bar--he's contracted with Guitar Sam, the biggest bluesman in New Orleans, to come and play one night at the lounge. With a massive influx of customers and huge boost in profits, the Honeydripper will stay open. Without it, Purvis is sunk. It's that simple, and to keep his place open Pinetop Purvis will do anything that it takes, including having a guitar player perform (as a piano man, Purvis is naturally biased towards his instrument and against others). It's even a good plan, because the day that Guitar Sam was available to play is right after payday, so all the field hands and soldiers will have a fresh payday and a week full of boredom and backache to forget about.
In down, the guitar-carrying youngster finds that he's on the wrong side of the train tracks when a white cafe owner gives him a silent stink eye while retrieving the day's milk delivery; he comes across Possum, a blind guitarist that I think is supposed to be the spirit of the blues (played by Keb' Mo'; he and Gary Clark Jr. did all their own guitar work and singing in the film and they're both utterly spectacular). Sonny gets directions to the Ace of Spades and the Honeydripper from the blind guitarist ("Is it a long walk?" "You in a hurry?"; I love the way the characters in this movie cut each other down in a remarkably good-natured way). The blind guitarist drops a couple clues to his nature in this scene--he says white folks look right through him, which could be taken literally or metaphorically, and he uses the term "spook" to refer to himself (Sonny uses "our people" and the sheriff says "Negro", though he pronounces it in the Southern style with a short I for the E and a short A for the O; "spook" is never used to describe any of the other characters in the film). The way the camera reveals Possum sitting on a chair after Sonny walks by is an impossibility--the viewer should have seen him earlier than they do.
Possum clues Sonny in about the two clubs--the Ace of Spades just has a jukebox, and the Honeydripper won't let a guitarist perform (and when we see Possum backing up Bertha Mae in the first scene in the lounge, he's playing harmonica rather than the guitar, so we know Pinetop has nothing against guitarists, per se, just against the guitar). Possum also lets Sonny know that Pinetop killed someone in the past and then does him the second favor of letting him know that he should shut the hell up about it rather than ask Purvis about it when he sees him. (The stylized, blue-lit flashback where the audience finds out exactly what happened gives me chills every time I see it.)
Just in case things weren't looking bleak enough for Pinetop Purvis, it turns out that an out-of-town gangster took over the management of the Honeydripper, showing up in a sharp pinstripe suit accessorized with a .45 automatic; some quick negotiation prevents violence but the deadline to pay a missed month's rent gets stepped up to Saturday night. Pinetop already had to hope like hell that Guitar Sam is enough of a draw to save his business. Now it's starting to look like one Saturday night's receipts might need to be good enough to save his life. Things get just a little worse when it turns out there isn't enough money at the Honeydripper to pay for that week's liquor delivery (which also provides a director cameo; Sayles is the man who refuses to sell booze to a bar on credit, which is probably a pretty good business decision). If it weren't for Purvis capitalizing on the delivery meant for the Ace of Spades that was already paid for, he'd be running a bar with no liquor in it on the most important night of his professional life.
Which is why things look so dire when the train rolls into town and Guitar Sam isn't on it. One of my favorite lines in the movie is here, when Purvis asks one of the porters why the musician is in the hospital: "You know music folks. Whatever he was doing, he must have been doing too much of it".
So all Purvis has to do is find another musician good enough to take the place of Guitar Sam (which might not be impossible--nobody in the crowd will know what the man looks like), keep Toussaint from beating his ass or killing him if or when he finds out about the booze theft, pay off the sheriff, pay off the mobster that took over his rent for the club, keep the power from going out again at his club, and everything ought to turn out all right in the end. If he's got a guardian angel he didn't even know about watching over him. Maybe. It's a good thing that Sonny and Pinetop's stepdaughter are attracted to each other; if the kid's good enough maybe Purvis will get out of the whole mess skin intact and bank balance improved. First, however, he's got to come to a financial arrangement with the sheriff, who arrested Sonny for vagrancy and sentenced him to laboring in a local farmer's cotton fields (the farmer gives a slice of the harvest money to the sheriff for this service, of course).
There's another thread to the narrative; one of the field hands that's going to be working all week so he can drink and dance all Saturday night has a smart mouth and irritates one of the other cotton pickers on his crew; they're going to be needling each other all week long. And when life is a constant series of frustrations and setbacks interrupted by poverty and backbreaking labor, sooner or later a punch is going to get thrown and answered with a knife, a razor or a gun. Everyone in town knows that there's blood on the floor at the Ace of Spades twice a month or so (though the sheriff only gets called in to do anything in the wake of a death). And as the days go by and the Guitar Sam concert gets closer, it looks more and more obvious that one of those two specific fieldhands is going to kill the other (unless they both manage to kill each other). It's a relationship that starts out with them sizing each other up and announcing their mutual dislike and it builds though little grievances and insults, but never lets up. And when they both find themselves at the Honeydripper when the snapping point is reached, Pinetop Purvis has a chance to atone for something that happened in the heat of the moment decades in his past and that has haunted him every day since.
And, just to be fair, some of the other field hands do what they can to help the slick and somewhat irritating new guy out--he's never done this labor before (and his new city clothes are a total contrast to the worn overalls the rest of the picking crew is wearing), but nearly everyone expresses solidarity with the braggart and tries to give him advice on how to pick cotton in order to maximize the payout at the end of the day without wearing himself down. (There is something to be said for a new perspective on the system, though. During the weigh-in, the white clerks and land owners deduct money for stones and dirt in the cotton bags, regardless of whether there were any contaminants to be found. The newest field hand figures he might as well throw extra rocks in the bag if they're going to take money away from him; everyone else just viewed the wage theft as part of the system that couldn't be changed.)
The aspect of Sayles' movies I enjoy the most is the effortless interweaving of all the plot threads--in this film there's Pinetop's professional woes, his family problems, blossoming romance between his stepdaughter and Sonny, the building anger between the two field hands, and the ever-present menace from Sheriff Pugh hanging over everything. There's also the passing of musical styles from the old acoustic blues embodied by Bertha Mae and Possum to Sonny's electrified R&B, Purvis' and Maceo's friendship and support for each other--contrast their good-natured razzing of each other to the field hands' continuing antagonism or the way Toussaint's henchmen spits venom at Purvis--and the continuing presence of Delilah's church (which wants her to choose between following the Lord or staying in the secular world; there's a musical number at a tent service when she makes her choice and the preacher has a voice like thunder. It's not part of the main storyline at all but Sayles makes it seem apocalyptic and lays the stakes out clearly for the choice that Delilah has to make).
Half a dozen characters get great scenes or monologues--Maceo is the hero's sidekick but gets a speech where he lays out why he's terrified of Miss Nadine, a regular at the Honeydripper that isn't there for the music, the food or to drink--and he savors every syllable as he tells the story of how she got back at a man who did her wrong. Possum plays off of Sonny and Purvis in two different scenes that lay out the history of the protagonist and show just how much effort Harmony is putting in to crushing Pinetop's soul. Stacy Keach plays his role like a lazy cat--he's been in control of the town for so long that people have lived their entire lives with him at the top of the pyramid, and he doesn't seem to believe that any real effort is required any more to get obedience from the black population (and he appears to be right; picking a fight with the law would be suicidally stupid for a black man in Alabama in 1950, fable or not).
As another reward to the audience, the soundtrack is beyond spectacular. If you have any interest at all in the blues, R&B or R&R, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie, and to listen to it. The performances were captured live by actors doing their own playing (or, if you prefer, musicians doing their own acting) with the exception of Danny Glover's piano man. But Glover carries every frame of the movie and his portrayal of the fiercely independent Pinetop Purvis anchors the entire film; his refusal to go down without a fight and his obvious love and concern for his wife and stepdaughter ground the movie in its time and place. He looks like he's been losing against the world for decades but doesn't have it in him to even consider trying to quit. His monologue about the day a house slave first encountered a piano reminds me of Jonathan Richman's "Monologue about Bermuda", a spoken-word piece where he explains the song he's singing by doing three different impressions of three different performers using only his guitar and voice, but with a history of pain instead of one about getting paid to play guitar at a hotel in the Caribbean.
If you haven't seen a John Sayles movie before I envy you, and Honeydripper makes a great place to start. It's a fable about 20th century American history with scope and grandeur; all the actors bring their A game and all the musicians knew they were making something really special. The weight of the past bearing down on people in the present is a common theme of his films, and in this one there's a frank acceptance of just what race in America means and the true value of escape and entertainment, even for a moment. The rich and powerful take advantage of the poor and powerless. The old ways die, the new ways are born. The fields are green, then brown, then green again. The music keeps rolling on.