Tuesday, 11 October 2016
As part of the first volume of our American Independents DVD collection, Discover Now takes a retrospective look at John Sayles' electrifying feature film on the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in HONEYDRIPPER.
FILM OF THE WEEK
Philip French, THE OBSERVER
About the Film:
Acclaimed writer/director John Sayles (LONE STAR, PASSION FISH) brings the birth of rock ‘n’ roll to life with electrifying effect in HONEYDRIPPER.
With a stunning soundtrack and a stellar cast, including Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Stacey Keach and Mary Steenburgen, as well as performances by Motown legend Dr. Mable John, Keb’ Mo’ and the highly distinguished guitarist Gary Clark Jr., HONEYDRIPPER is a rock ‘n’ roll story as it has never been told before.
It’s 1950 and it’s a make or break weekend for Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), the proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge. Deep in debt, Tyrone is desperate to bring back the crowds that used to come to his place. He decides to lay off his long-time blues singer Bertha Mae, and announces that he’s hired a famous guitar player, Guitar Sam, for a one night only gig in order to save the club.
Into town drifts Sonny Blake, a young man with nothing to his name but big dreams and the guitar case in his hand. Rejected by Tyrone when he applies to play at the Honeydripper, he is intercepted by the corrupt local Sheriff, arrested for vagrancy and rented out as an unpaid cotton picker to the highest bidder. But when Tyron's ace-in-the hole fails to materialize at the train station, his desperation leads him back to Sonny and the strange, wire-dangling object in his guitar case.
The Honeydripper lounge is all set to play its part in rock n' roll history...
Watch the trailer here
Iconoclastic filmmaker John Sayles, in his 16th feature film, continues his extraordinary examination of the complexities and shifting identities of American sub-cultures in HONEYDRIPPER. With his usual understated intelligence, Sayles uses the rhythms of the citizens of Harmony, Alabama to immerse the audience into the world of the Jim Crow south. It’s a fable about the birth of rock n’ roll—a quintessentially American subject, but with a fidelity to time and temperament that is unusual in an American director.
"A lot of ink has been spilled by music writers about what deserves to be considered the ‘first rock and roll song’. I’ve always felt that the beginning of any new spirit or style in the world - in sports, art, religion, politics - makes for an interesting story. Who jumps aboard the new thing right away and who decides, no thanks, I’m sticking with what I know? What is the cost when you make either decision? HONEYDRIPPER takes place in the little crossroads town of Harmony, Alabama, in 1950. Blues singers still sit outside the drugstores, playing for pennies, the jukebox has room for big bands, jump combos like Louis Jordan’s, country and protorockabilly stars like Hank Williams, Perry Como style crooners and perky novelty songs, while gospel is the most commonly listened-to live music. But technology is about to intrude. The guitar player, relegated to sideman on the bandstand, is about to plug his sax in. And once the guitar can wail and slide with the same volume as the horns or piano - watch out.
In the movie Gary Clark Jr., a guitar prodigy out of Austin, plays Sonny Blake, conjuring up the spirit of Ike Turner, T Bone Walker, Johnny Watson and countless others who pushed the music forward when they got electrified, and Danny Glover plays Pinetop Purvis, an itinerant boogie-woogie piano player who has made his stand by buying the Honeydripper Lounge and presenting the music he’s absorbed in his own life, up-to-the moment or not. He is haunted by his past and resistant to the future, and suddenly this good-looking kid rolls into town carrying a guitar with no hole in it--- There is tension and harmony in almost every song, and wars are fought within music without a word being uttered. One of these battles for dominance that was waged in the early 50’s was between the guitar and the piano. Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis did their best to hold the stage, but when Chuck Berry started blasting piano chords on his guitar and duck-walking across the stage (Jerry Lee did his best, but the piano is not a mobile instrument) the course of popular music was set. Even the honking saxophone, raunchy soul of rhythm and blues, faded to a support role, or in white rock, disappeared almost entirely.
I’ve heard inner city hoop players and jazz musicians use the same phrase to describe the rules of entry to their world--‘If you can play, you can stay.’ Electrified blues bands in Chicago were known to literally play their competitors off the stage, taking over their gigs. In HONEYDRIPPER Pinetop Purvis has to decide whether the new music is a threat or a life-saving opportunity. Tension, harmony, potential violence- put some rhythm in it and its drama. It’s rock and roll."
For the old Phelps Grocery in Midway, Alabama shuttered since 1977 and overgrown with vines, the HONEYDRIPPER production meant rebirth as a classic 1950 juke joint, the Honeydripper Lounge. HONEYDRIPPER is all about such transformation: a second chance for an aging bluesman, a rocket kick-off to a young guitar turk’s career, and the rise of rock ‘n roll itself. Capturing that mid-century moment in time was key to bringing HONEYDRIPPER’s story of musical metamorphosis to life. “We needed fields of high cotton, an army base, and a town center that could look 1950 convincingly,” said writer, director, and editor John Sayles. “We found most of that in Butler County, Alabama, along with a warm reception from the local people. The mayor of Greenville read the script and said “I’d love to have at least one of those two little boys be a kid from Greenville.” And that’s Absalom Adams, the kid playing the homemade keyboard. There was a lot of pride and excitement around the production.” HONEYDRIPPER, John Sayles’ 16th feature film, and the 13th produced by longtime collaborator Maggie Renzi, was shot in the southern Alabama towns of Greenville, Georgiana, Anniston, and Midway in the late summer and early fall of 2006.
Sounds from the Choir
The Alabama townspeople became major contributors to HONEYDRIPPER. “Out of 46 speaking roles, 18 were cast in Alabama, including the members of the New Beginnings Ministry choir in Greenville,” explained Renzi. “We asked New Beginnings to give us their best singers, and wow! We couldn’t have duplicated that sound. The local people have the right accents, the looks—I had a crowd of extras, and after they got through with wardrobe and styling, I asked them to raise their hands if they looked just like old photos of their parents and grandparents. Every hand went up.”
Even for native Alabamans, recreating the Deep South of 1950 was not effortless. “We had to hold a seminar in how to pick cotton,” recalled Sayles, “because it’s all mechanized now. We got people over 50 to show us how it was done. The extras in the cotton fields won a new appreciation for how hard their parents worked!”
Rock ‘n Roll Roots
HONEYDRIPPER grew out of Sayles’ fascination with the genesis of rock ‘n roll. “There was no single moment when R&B, blues, gospel, jazz, and country all came together to create this thing called rock ‘n roll,” he said, “but a big change came with the advent of the electric guitar. Before that, the piano ruled—it produced a lot more sound than a little acoustic guitar. Suddenly, a poor boy like Sonny (Gary Clark, Jr.) could travel around with a portable, cheap, high-volume electric guitar and peel the paint off the walls. There were lots of Guitar Sams and Guitar Slims in those days. Everybody was moving around and listening to each other—white and black. Hank Williams was from Georgiana. Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis were sneaking into black clubs. Chuck Berry was famous for recreating percussive piano rhythm drive using guitar licks. Black and white servicemen were filling the juke joints on their nights off—an army base would be a huge economic resource for a struggling bar owner like Tyrone, the Danny Glover character. Radio and jukeboxes spread the music quickly. “At the same time, I wanted to capture that poignant period when the old blues styles were waning, like the salty medicine-show hokum that Bertha Mae (Dr. Mable John) sings. In any field—sports, music, politics—these times of change are incredibly rich.”
Live music’s raw immediacy is hard to capture when actors are lip-synching to prerecorded music, and Sayles wanted both the music and acting unfettered and fresh. All the actor/musicians performed live (apart from Danny Glover), often improvising. “Keb’ Mo’ decided his street-spirit character Possum could only play in the key of G,” laughed Sayles.
The movie’s high energy is embodied in handsome young guitar prodigy Gary Clark, Jr., who plays Sonny. “He’s from Austin, Texas, a big discovery at the South By Southwest Festival. When we first saw him play, he had just turned 21, and finally he could appear unchaperoned in clubs that serve liquor.” A high point in the filming—and the climax of the movie—comes when Sonny, guitar wailing, leads the HONEYDRIPPER’S entire dance floor out of the club and into the neon-lit night. “Gary had to be able to really carry off that stunt of jumping up on the parked car while he’s playing,” said Sayles. “The shot called for our most elaborate set-up—a crane shot rising over the club, the dancers, the HONEYDRIPPER marquee and the competing club next door.”
From the two little boys with their homemade instruments (the string contraption is called a diddley-bow, and now you know where Bo Diddley got his name), to blues and R&B legends many decades their senior, HONEYDRIPPER is jammed with musicians celebrating the joy of ensemble music-making. A stellar musical line-up of more than 40 musicians appears on the HONEYDRIPPER soundtrack, including masters like Delta Blues revivalist Keb’ Mo’; Motown pioneer and ordained minister Dr. Mable John (Bertha Mae); sax man Eddie Shaw (Time Trenier), who played with Howlin' Wolf; blues harp ace Jerry Portnoy (studio tracks), who is a veteran of Muddy Waters' band; and many others.
HONEYDRIPPER is available as part of the American Independents DVD collection Volume 1 and also as a standalone 2-disc edition through our online store, where you'll also find signed posters by Danny Glover and Dr. Mable John available for purchase. To watch the film on VOD please click here.
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