John Sayles ventures into August Wilson territory with “Honeydripper,” the story of Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), a piano player who once killed a man in a barroom fight, now struggling to keep his own roadhouse from financial ruin.
With each turn of events being telegraphed well in advance, there are no surprises in Sayles’ script. The cast, however, headed by Glover’s complex portrait of a man plagued by his past, is fresh enough to cover the stale plot mechanics.
Charles S. Dutton, who made his Broadway debut in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” plays Maceo, Tyrone’s sidekick. His presence goes a long way toward establishing the mood and tone of a Wilson play, Unlike the Pittsburgh settings of most of Wilson’s plays (“Ma Rainey” is set in Chicago), “Honeydripper” takes place in rural Alabama in the ’50s.
A theatrical rhythm is established in the film’s 15-minute opening scene. Sayles maintains a pace that is as measured and reflective as a Southern drawl, leaving plenty of space for incidental observation. Cinematographer Dick Pope gives the tight interior scenes the same kind of heightened realism he used with director Mike Leigh on such films as “Naked” and “Secrets & Lies.”
“Honeydripper” is, like Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” a ghost story haunted by the blues. Its antagonists are the piano, associated with redemptive music, and the devil’s favorite prop, the guitar. Tyrone believes that by banning guitar music from his club, he can keep the devil at bay. He discovers the truth to be something entirely different.