chris atchison/metro toronto
As a young boy growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., John Sayles became captivated by a new genre of popular music.
It would eventually be called rock and roll, but in the early 1950s it was merely a hybrid mix of blues, country and R&B incorporating the exciting new sounds of the solid-body electric guitar.
By the time it began making sense to the young Sayles, rock was a fixture on the American music scene and was quickly spreading worldwide.
Sayles the acclaimed independent filmmaker, now 57, never forgot those early experiences and channelled his recollections, along with his encyclopedic knowledge and passion for blues, gospel and music history in general, into the script for his latest effort Honeydripper.
Danny Glover stars as Tyrone Purvis in the film, a piano-playing club owner in rural Alabama who faces bankruptcy if he can’t find a way to fill his bar.
He hires the legendary Guitar Sam to play and hopefully turn his fortunes around, but the proud proprietor is forced to look to the six-string skills of a drifter named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) when Sam fails to show up.
“I started thinking about (musical) transitions, how does one music turn into another?” writer-director Sayles says alongside his long-time producing partner Maggie Renzi. “How does one music influence another and turn into something very, very different?”
That seemingly simple sonic evolution from blues to rock in the deep South would not only change American music, but would affect pop culture the world over and exposed white America to artistic aspects of African-American life like never before.
Arguably, it also represented an opportunity for African-Americans to begin the movement to overturn oppressive Jim Crow laws in the southern U.S.
It’s this aspect of the story that the always socially conscious Sayles was interested in highlighting — exactly what a black-owned juke joint meant to a group of people that even in 1950 were still largely relegated to a life spent picking cotton or working menial service jobs.
“(Purvis) is an African-American man in the deep south in 1950 who’s his own man,” Sayles explains. “Somehow he realizes that’s not just important to him, that’s important to the whole community, that there can be people like him. In 1950 that’s about as far as you can go, that’s about as radical.”
Honeydripper opens today.