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Friday, February 22, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Honeydripper" is a semi-musical set in Alabama

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Honeydripper," with Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Charles S. Dutton, Stacy Keach, Gary Clark Jr., Mary Steenburgen.

Written and directed by John Sayles. 123 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief violence and some suggestive material. Uptown.

When writer-actor-director John Sayles turned up at Bumbershoot last year, he talked candidly about his career as an independent filmmaker and as a script doctor who is much in demand for such major-studio productions as "The Spiderwick Chronicles."

He also couldn't resist showing tantalizing clips from his latest independent film: "Honeydripper," a semi-musical set in rural Alabama that appeared to be a departure for him. Unlike the dramas he's directed since hitting a career peak with "Lone Star" (1998), it's more about music than politics.

Indeed, it's essentially a "let's put on a show" musical, of the kind Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made repeatedly at MGM in the 1940s — though they did it more persuasively. The story's inherent suspense slips whenever Sayles gets distracted by subplots and characters who are less than crucial to the narrative flow.

The main action takes place in the Honeydripper Lounge, a roadhouse that is deeply in debt and about to close. The owner, Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover), arranges a youth-oriented make-or-break concert in order to lure cotton pickers and Army recruits.

The headline attraction is the famous Guitar Sam, but when he doesn't turn up, Purvis is forced to make a deal with the local sheriff (Stacy Keach) to release Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), a traveling guitar player who might be just as talented as the missing musician. Everything rides on whether Sonny can deliver.

The year is 1950, during the early stages of the Korean War, which Purvis describes as "black folks shootin' yellow folks to keep white folks happy." Segregation is still very much an issue, but aside from Purvis' dealings with Sonny and the sheriff (who has arrested Sonny simply for being jobless), it doesn't play a big part.

The movie is essentially a parade of scenes that seem to have been shaped around the actors: Charles S. Dutton as Purvis' buddy, Mary Steenburgen as a Southern belle who declares "small minds are never in short supply," Lisa Gay Hamilton as Purvis' distracted wife, Sayles himself as a reluctant Honeydripper supplier.

Although "Honeydripper" won a screenplay award at the San Sebastián Film Festival, it's not Sayles' strongest work. Part of the problem is that it keeps building to a rock-'n'-roll payoff that never quite arrives. Still, the final scenes are enjoyable enough, thanks partly to Clark's appealing performance as a star in the making.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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