Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In the neighbourhood: John Sayles and Maggie Renzi on Honeydripper, sense of place, and not moving to Canada

John Sayles has made 19 features over the last three decades and he’s made them the hard way, which in most cases is hopefully also the fun way, the way of unexpected inspiration, and of richer rewards. Sayles’ method of filmmaking strips the cloudiness and the confusion away from the term ‘independent.” His films are genuinely built from the ground up. Sometimes they’re sublime, sometimes they don’t entirely work, but they’re always the real thing.

Sayles and his producer Maggie Renzi have already spent months on the road, going from one community to another, promoting Honeydripper, a drama set in Harmony, Alabama in 1950, where, amidst news from Korea and perpetual tensions between the white and black side of the tracks, rhythm and blues is about to plug in and rock and roll about to spill forth, sputtering its first earthly breaths. I spoke with Sayles and Renzi—an inspiring, imminently down-to-earth couple who’ve stuck it out as partners and collaborators for more than 30 years—during their stop in Toronto. Renzi emphasized just how much they were depending on Honeydripper’s success to keep their spirits up and keep them making movies in an increasingly difficult climate.

“It was in 2004, right after Silver City was released and died a miserable death,” Renzi explains. “George Bush was back in for another four years. It was really a terrible low point for both of us and many of our countrymen. And instead of just saying, that’s it, we’re not making any more movies, let’s move to Canada, John said, ‘I have this idea about a guy who runs a club in the South in the 50s, and he does anything he needs to do to save his club, and that means he’s got to move along.’ And I thought, he hasn’t given up. It’s a great thing to make a movie about a middle-aged man moving along when you could be just brought to your knees, which is pretty well where we were.”

The character in question is Tyrone Purvis, whose place of business—the Honeydripper music club of the title—is on its last legs. He’s in debt. He can’t get liquor. The club across the way is draining Tyrone’s clientele with a louder, much cheaper source of entertainment called the jukebox. He’s about to be forcibly taken over by some moneymen and the local, lazy, racist white sheriff isn’t about to help him out. His daughter is sick and his wife is fed up… Sounds like a blues song, doesn’t it?

Tyrone still has a few good musicians at his disposal, including himself on piano, but their sound is rapidly becoming antique. Desperation pushes him to pour whatever funds he can raise into bringing in Guitar Sam, some dude in a flashy suit who plays some kinda amplified guitar. Tyrone’s hubris is his integrity, yet he’s not above trickery and theft to keep going. And there’s some story about his past that no one talks about, one that puts him in a very sinister light. It is among the film’s greatest strengths that Tyrone is played by Danny Glover, who wrangles all of these contradictions into a single living portrait of a no-longer-young man at the crossroads.

“The genesis of the story really comes out of the music,” Sayles explains, “from me growing up in the 50s, listening to top 40 rock and roll radio, which was pretty good, but then slowly finding my way to blues and gospel, which made me work backwards. I realized that rock and roll came from some place. The driving question in this is when did these disparate threads turn into rock and roll and why, which got me to researching the history of the first electric guitar. I started to think what that must have done to the music. Life was getting noisier and faster, so the music was going to change.”

Honeydripper’s other central protagonist is Sonny Blake, a radio repairman in the war who read an article about Les Paul in Popular Electronics and decided to make his own electric guitar. Sonny is riding to rails to nowhere in particular when he finds himself in Harmony and meets Tyrone—and his lovely daughter—just before getting sentenced to picking cotton for the county for doing nothing in the wrong place. As very charming as it often is, Honeydripper is decidedly not a story of great suspense, so I’m not ruining much by telling you that fate will slowly conspire so that young Sonny and his newfangled contraption will eventually ally themselves with Tyrone and his club.

Sayles attempts to wed myth and archetype—ie: the spooky mystical blind guitar-playing oracle played by Keb Mo, or Mary Steenburgen’s pickled belle—to naturalism is at times awkward, and his immersion in the Southern black vernacular makes for some strained, stagey-sounding dialogue (though Glover’s monologue about the first African-American to dare to tinkle on his master’s piano is absolutely riveting). But, besides the performances, and, of course, the music, what keeps Honeydripper compelling is how thoroughly it’s rooted in culture, place and people. As with many of Sayles films, it is the loving attention to detail, the heartfelt investment in ordinary lives being lived against the broader backdrop of history, that distinguishes the work and imbues it with sufficient vivacity.

“In other films,” explains Renzi, “so often there’s no real setting, no real time, no real sense of geography. The history of the place doesn’t figure into the story. Whereas what John does is take you right into that neighbourhood, lets you walk around, and the story grows out of that. Otherwise Honeydripper’s a pretty girl and a guy who plays a guitar—an Elvis movie, basically.” Both Sayles and Renzi have a good chuckle at this. Needless to say, Honeydripper’s all-black—and unanimously gifted—cast also gives it a little something extra you don’t find in Elvis movies.

“It’s been fun touring with this movie,” Renzi says, “seeing how warmly audiences, especially Southern and African-American audiences, have responded to it, and seeing their affection for John’s work in general. The people we’ve shown it to, they all want to tell you about this one movie that was so important to them. Often it’s Matewan, sometimes City of Hope or Eight Men Out. But it does seem like in nearly every case what people respond to are the particulars.”

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