Thursday, February 21, 2008

HONEYDRIPPER - a finely balanced, wonderful picture

So here we are again. Danny Glover playing an old man, Tyrone Purvis, trying to keep his business despite financial strife and seemingly unstoppable change. In BE KIND REWIND it was the change from gonzo VHS to DVD. In HONEYDRIPPER, it's the change from acoustic blues to electric rock.

HONEYDRIPPER is the name of Tyrone's club on the outskirts of an Alabama town called Harmony. It's 1950. People of colour are still under the yoke of the white man - terrorised by the local Sherriff and hired into cotton-picking by the local judge. Radical evangelicals demand conversion to righteousness and the ruthless sloughing off of sinful, unrepentant family members. Tyrone's bar, featuring an outstanding old blues singer is losing business to a rival club that has a jukebox and Hot Jazz.

As with all John Sayles' movies, HONEYDRIPPER balances a credible, emotionally affecting character-led story with social and political insight. The recreation of a time, not lo song ago, when racism was tangible and endemic is frightening and saddening. But Sayles is careful to never let it swamp the emotional heart of the story. That is Tyrone's struggle to keep his bar without alienating his wife Delilah. Tyrone crosses many a line to raise the cash he needs and it's tribute to Glover's performance that even when he's doing these pretty morally questionable things, we always believe he's basically a good guy and we always want him to succeed. But the real stand-out performance in a movie with a strong ensemble cast is that of Lisa Gay Hamilton as Delilah. She's a good strong woman and she's no fool. She recognises the strength and the flaws in Tyrone. Similarly, while she wants to be part of a Church she can see through the hysteria of the local evangelicals. Sayles has written a fully rounded character, and Hamilton has brought her to life wonderfully. Other notable performances include newcomer Yaya DaCosta as Delilah's daughter ChinaDoll and Mary Steenburgen as the well-meaning but ultimately clueless Amanda.

HONEYDRIPPER is in some ways Sayles' most finely balanced film - combining a fascinating story with devestating social critique. The script, performances, production values are all top-notch. It's one of those movies where you feel that you are watching a complete final product - that the director has a completeness of vision. The added bonus - or rather - the glue that holds the whole thing together is the sound-track. Even if the film were no good, it would be worth watching just for the music. Mason Daring corals a number of great blues, gospel and rock musicians for some live numbers that blow you away.

HONEYDRIPPER played Toronto and London 2007 and was released in the US in DEcember 2007. It goes on release in the UK on April 25th.

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