The story centers around Pine Top Purvis (Danny Glover), the piano-playing proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge, who’s at risk of losing his club due to debt caused by competition from a younger, hipper juke joint down the road. The Honeydripper is the kind of dive where drunks go to drown their sorrows as an elderly diva (Mable John) douses them in blues. Like most of Sayles’ films, there’s an expansive cast of colorful characters, including Pine Top’s Bible-thumping wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton); his gorgeous daughter China Doll (America’s Next Top Model runner-up YaYa DaCosta); his best friend Maceo (Charles S. Dutton); the racist local sheriff (Stacy Keach); the aging singer’s devoted man (Vondie Curtis-Hall); and a mysterious blind guitarist from Purvis’ past (Keb Mo).
Unfolding as leisurely as a sweltering summer day in the South, the story gains momentum with the arrival of a wandering musician named Sonny (played by Texas-based blues artist Gary Clark Jr.). Broke, hungry and armed with little more than a homemade electric guitar carved out of solid wood, the young Black man is arrested and put to work picking cotton for the sheriff’s buddy. Meanwhile, Purvis hatches a plan to book blues legend Guitar Sam out of New Orleans, hoping the profits will be enough to pay off the debtors threatening to close the club down. But when Guitar Sam fails to make the train into Harmony, Pine Top is left with little choice but to bail the kid out, dress him up like a rhythm ‘n’ blues star and hope the crowd is too busy rocking out to notice.
The film’s deliberate pacing and slow, steady dynamic build are at times in danger of scaring away all but the most devout art house audiences, but those not suffering from ADD will enjoy Sayles’ subtlety in exploring issues of old vs. young, of black vs. white, and of sacred vs. secular. Glover delivers his best performance in years, while each of the supporting cast members seems perfectly cast. It’s not a great film by any means, but it is a good one, reminding younger audiences what life was like for black folks in the Jim Crow South, long before music broke down all sorts of barriers and exposed the entire world to the wonders of the African-American cultural experience.