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Directed by John Sayles
Certificate PG, 124 min

Sayles funds his independent film productions as a screenwriter for hire, most recently on last month's The Spiderwick Chronicles. His latest directorial outing continues his state-by-state portrait of America, with Alabama providing the backdrop to a story which deals with issues of black and white race, Christianity and rock'n'roll - and all the tensions that those subjects imply.

With the Honeydripper Lounge on the verge of bankruptcy, its proprietor Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) needs to take action. His ageing, regular blues singer Bertha Mae (Dr. Mable John) no longer pulls the crowds. To turn his finances around, Tyrone fly-posts his venue's forthcoming gig featuring the bluesman of the moment Guitar Sam. Trouble is, Tyrone hasn't yet booked this performer. Meanwhile, the incoming guitar-carrying hopeful Sonny Blake (Gary Clark, Jr) gets arrested for vagrancy by the local sheriff. What Sonny really wants is a gig like the Honeydripper.

Sayles redeploys the ensemble approach that characterised so many of his earlier films (Lone Star, City Of Hope, Sunshine State) to deliver an incredibly rich array of characters and situations. Mary Steenburgen's brilliant, brief part as a white employer of black servants perfectly expresses how the well-meaning can play along with an exploitative social order without realising what they're doing, while Stacy Keach's racist white sheriff is suitably unsettling. But these are fringe characters, most of the story taking place within the local black community.

The film makes much of the spiritual and social distance between the watering hole and the church, both of which have their own very different brands of live music (the church here, incidentally, possess a truly superb gospel choir). The watering hole is represented by Tyrone, with all his struggles to keep a business afloat despite debts to the power company and liquor suppliers, his love of music, and his desire to provide people with somewhere they can have a good night out. The church is represented by Tyrone's wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who is torn between helping her husband by doing the Honeydripper's catering and constantly being told at the local revival tent she attends that she should bring her 'sinful' husband along. Delilah thus becomes a character torn between these two mutually exclusive worlds.

In the end though, Honeydripper is about the music. When Sonny Boy finally gets to play a gig, his instrument is something hitherto unseen by the Honeydripper's regulars - a guitar wired for sound so that, unlike its acoustic precursors, it can hold its own against the louder unamplified volume of piano and drums. The resultant set-piece finale is all recorded live (rather than mimed to playback) which gives it an authenticity it otherwise wouldn't have, Gary Clark, Jr being something of a rising musical star in his own right. (The film is also peppered throughout with renowned black musicians.) This birthing rock'n'roll performance is nothing less than a joyous riot. For all the tension between this 'secular' music and the church - and for all his feeling for the good folk attending the latter - Sayles' sympathies here lie with the life-affirming force of the live, amplified music. Less a case of the devil having all the good music than of the church failing to offer musicians a place to push the medium's envelope.

Jeremy Clarke