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Payday Saturday 

John Sayles' latest film, Honeydripper, retells one of the legends of Guitar Slim and opens a lens to the early days of R&B.

In the 1950s, when rhythm-and-blues music was on a roll, a bluesman named Eddie Jones fled the Mississippi cotton fields for the Lower Ninth Ward. He billed himself as Guitar Slim and scored an R&B chart buster in 1953 with "The Things That I Used to Do." As with the mythical Delta singer Robert Johnson, said to have sold his soul to the devil, there is no evidence that Guitar Slim ever gave a single interview. He did, however, tell a friend that the devil gave him his big song in a dream. He drank hard and died young in 1959.

In an interview with Jonathan Foose years ago, Gerri Hall, a background vocalist with Huey Smith and the Clowns, recalled Slim sitting outside a small store in the Ninth Ward: "Six o'clock in the morning — he done been out all night — and he'd play that guitar with the amplifier so loud. Just sittin' on his step."

He made the move to club life in a wardrobe of lime-green pants, red coats and hair dyed any color from the rainbow, packing the crowds at Central City clubs in those years of segregation, walking on table tops and up on the bar with 30 feet of cord to the guitar, rolling out blues like a river of lava.

"I remember going to his room one day at the Dew Drop," Earl King once told Tad Jones. "There musta been six girls in the room, and he said, 'Now girls, Earl is here. We have to take care of some business, so y'all just run along.'"

Hangovers sometimes kept Slim from getting out of bed. In those years before saturation TV, promoter Frank Painia, who owned the Dew Drop, would send Earl King on the road, billed as Guitar Slim. This happened with other musicians: when a headliner couldn't make it, send out the best facsimile you could find. When King got back to town, Slim screamed at him: "Man if you wreck my name I'm gonna sue you!" King forked over a cut of his take.

That story of a disguised blues singer rolling into a country juke joint is the plot pivot in John Sayles' stunning film, Honeydripper. In a career spanning 16 films and several novels, Sayles is a storyteller of rare gifts whose own narrative stands out in high relief from a film industry of rising costs and sinking quality. Sayles earns serious money as a script doctor — revising screenplays on big-ticket studio projects — which helps support the films he writes and directs. They are produced by his life partner, Maggie Renzi.

Among Sayles' previous films, Lone Star explored a Texas border town as a melding of American identity with Mexico. Silver City, in 2004, was a haunting film about how a rich politician's son who can barely utter an intelligible sentence, sells out his constituents to developers and toxic polluters and wins a U.S. Senate seat. Chris Cooper played the senator as a dead ringer for George W. Bush, particularly in those stuttered silences when even though you detest the on-screen character, you're squirming in the seat, hoping he'll get something out of his mouth. Silver City is one of the best political films ever made.

Honeydripper does for Southern music what Silver City did for politics. The movie focuses on the struggles of the Honeydripper Lounge, whose debt-saddled owner, Tyrone Purvis (played with gritty stoicism by Danny Glover), is getting beat by a next-door club with R&B live music. The setting is a small Alabama town in 1950, but could as easily be the Mississippi Delta or Gretna, where a joint called the Pepper Pot helped launch Professor Longhair in the late 1940s. Purvis pins his hopes on Guitar Sam, "the biggest act in New Orleans," to save him on "payday Saturday, when all them cotton pickers and soldier boys come in here."

Sayles pans across Tyrone Purvis' life as a blues world in miniature. Brooding about a man he killed years ago, a sin for which he has never sought church atonement, Purvis shows a gentle side to his wife Delilah, played with nuance and deft emotional gestures by Lisa Gay Hamilton. Delilah works as a domestic servant and is cautious in her dealings with her employer (Mary Steenburgen), the depressed wife of a politician and a lonely woman given to late-afternoon toddies. The scenes of Delilah at worship with the New Beginnings Ministry Choir of Greenville, Ala., achieve a true-life quality rare on commercial screens.

Delilah's daughter, China Doll, is a lanky, wide-eyed teenager with dreams of becoming a hair stylist. An actress named Yaya DaCosta fills the role as if she were made for it, right down to the lilting cadences of her backcountry Alabama speech patterns. A real-life sizzling singer and guitar player named Gary Clark Jr. stars as Sonny Blake, a musician who pulls into town looking for a break just when news arrives that Guitar Sam won't be getting off that train from Little Rock to save the Honeydripper from going down.

If the plot is a tad predictable, Sayles' tight shots on the faces of key characters create an aura of intimacy, building tension as the story unfolds. Stacy Keach is pitch-perfect as a menacing redneck sheriff who pines for fried chicken of a kind his wife won't cook. Sayles doesn't sugarcoat the hard lot of black people in the Jim Crow South, but he gives his actors the space to express volumes in terse silences and clipped broodings about what they cannot change. All of that is leavened by music scenes that capture the comedy and beauty of rhythm and blues in the years when it began to surge.

So why isn't a film like this playing at Elmwood or the many malls where most of the movie tickets in America are sold?

As Sayles explained in a talk at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts after a January screening, Honeydripper was made for $5 million, which is tiny compared to mega-budget films like There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men. The economics of studio distribution tilt hard toward films that cost $50 million and above. They have to generate high sales quickly in the weekly tabulations by the entertainment press to earn back the investment by studios and producers.

Low-budget independent films rely on art-house screenings and alternative venues to make as much back as possible before they sell DVD rights, which account for wider distribution via Blockbuster and the chain stores. Emerging Pictures, the distributor for Honeydripper, sold the DVD rights for $1 million — not a huge take in the fierce competition for DVD sales.

Local screenings are part of a three-pronged distribution strategy by producer Renzi and Emerging Pictures. Sayles has a following in indie art houses. They hope to reach blues buffs via specialty publications, Web sites and music events to host screenings — a largely white male audience, aged 40 and older. "How do we connect with a younger African-American audience, the Sonnys and China Dolls of today?" the producers asked in a press briefing.

They forged an alliance with historically black colleges and universities, using the film as part of a course about marketing and publicizing films. That concept may seem starry-eyed to moviegoers jaded by the shrinking market for quality films at conventional theaters. But Sayles, Renzi and their colleagues at Emerging Pictures are charting territory that countless filmmakers and serious fans would love to see developed: a genuine alternative to the studio-squeezed chain theaters in which a small number of films are shown on thousands of U.S. screens each week.

Direct-sale DVDs represent a huge opportunity for niche marketing. It's no accident that, as the recording industry has suffered because of Internet downloading, musicians have to sell their CDs at concerts, clubs and via Web sites. The huge promotional budgets for a tour by Madonna or even Norah Jones no longer guarantee the payback to allow a label to produce and adequately market a blues or jazz act with medium sales. Across the entertainment industry, everyone is trying to reinvent the wheel, particularly filmmakers. We are living in the golden age of documentaries; but very few nonfiction films command the budgets that Michael Moore can raise, or find theatrical distribution to guarantee much revenue after the steep cost of promotion. The result is a proliferation of film festivals and producers seeking TV deals, with Web sites to sell DVDs.

None of that comes close to the wide-screen reach of big-budget films. If Honeydripper can make a serious dent with its college distribution plan, the advantage to African-American students interested in the business could be replicated at many other universities. It may even create a college circuit where films of solid quality and low- to medium-sized budgets could compete with the malls and movie chains that once drew their baby-boomer parents who now opt for Netflix or HBO.

click to enlarge Sonny Blake, played by Gary Clark Jr., heads out to seek fame as a singer/guitar player in Honeydripper. - JIM SHELDON
  • Jim Sheldon
  • Sonny Blake, played by Gary Clark Jr., heads out to seek fame as a singer/guitar player in Honeydripper.
click to enlarge Director John Sayles discusses a scene with Danny Glover, who plays the owner of the Honeydripper Lounge. He hopes that bringing in New Orleans musician Sonny Blake (played by Gary Clark Jr.) will save his business. - JIM SHELDON
  • Jim Sheldon
  • Director John Sayles discusses a scene with Danny Glover, who plays the owner of the Honeydripper Lounge. He hopes that bringing in New Orleans musician Sonny Blake (played by Gary Clark Jr.) will save his business.
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