John Sayles' Honeydripper: "I Want My Characters to Be Like Your Friends"

By Cathleen Rountree

John SaylesJohn Sayles, writer, director and editor, is considered one of the progenitors of the American independent film movement. After an impressive array of films - Return of the Secaucus Seven, Baby It's You, The Brother From Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, Lianna, City of Hope, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Men With Guns, Limbo, Sunshine State, Casa de los Babys and Silver City - Honeydripper, his 16th feature film, is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and readying for a run around the country.

The story revolves around Tyrone Purvis, played superbly by Danny Glover, as the struggling proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge, a music hall and community meeting place for blacks in 1950s Alabama. As Tyrone struggles to maintain his marriage and livelihood, he unwittingly ushers in a social and cultural sea-change in Sayles's mythic and joyous account of the birth of rock-and-roll.

Sayles and I met after Honeydripper's debut in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he displayed his impressive encyclopedic knowledge of music, expounded on "comic book movies" and border politics, and shared a liberal's fears about the final days of the Bush administration.


The main thing I'd like to focus on in our interview is the music - the music in this film, naturally, but also how you employ music throughout your body of work, which often assumes the role of a character in your films. I'm wondering what intrigued you about this subject matter - that specific period between acoustic and electric?

Well, I was born in 1950, the year in which this film is set, and the first record I ever owned was "Hound Dog."

Elvis Presley's version?

Yeah, but it originated as a blues version. And that's where I start with music. As I got interested, I sort of moved in both directions...

Between blues and rock-and-roll?

Right, between blues and rock-and-roll. But there weren't a lot of blues on the radio back then; Elvis was about as funky as it got. I kind of discovered blues through Ray Charles. You know, there would be little bluesy kinds of rifts in his music. And then he led me to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and some of those people, to see where some of the music came from. And then Sam Cooke led me to gospel, as did Aretha Franklin, because he sang those pop songs, but he was also with The Soul Stirrers. And some of the other guys might lead you to Louis Jordan - like Chuck Berry led me to Louis Jordan.

The "King of the Jukeboxes"?

He's the "jump blues" [a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie] guy. That was the transition period between when the swing bands were really big and then got smaller. He did "Five Guys Named Moe" and "Blue Light Boogie" – which we play in this film – and "Saturday Night Fish Fry." His songs had very clever lyrics and that honking saxophone. They were a little more sophisticated than rhythm and blues, but it was a smaller group, so it couldn't really be swing anymore with the big horn sections. So I liked all that music and I liked country and western. So if you listen to the Hank Williams song that's in the movie ("Move It On Over"), it's the exact same song as "Rock Around the Clock." So country was going in that rockabilly direction on its own.

So I was always interested in that transition period and what happens in any art, in any field of endeavor, when there's this sea change, when things change really fast, you know? And who jumps aboard the new thing, and who says, "No, I play jazz" or "I play blues" or "I'm a silent movie director" or "I'm not gonna go there, I don't like it" or "I can't go there; I can't play that stuff." And it happens in all kinds of fields.

So, for me, that was the beginning of it and that suggested a character who could go either way. And he's kinda gotta go with the new thing, but is he gonna like it? Is he gonna be able to do it?

HoneydripperThis is Tyrone, the character that Danny Glover plays?

And then I felt like, okay, that's a good beginning of a character. But also, so much of that early rock-and-roll came out of the South, and the racial situation down there. And, yes, it got electrified when it got to Chicago, in the case of the blues. But Chuck Berry was from St. Louis, you know; Ike Turner was a southern guy - he was working for Sun Records, who recorded Elvis and Johnny Cash. He was going out and basically finding blues and rhythm and blues artists for them. At the same time, he was playing in his own group. And, of course, Elvis was from Tennessee.

So I wanted to set the film in the South, and began thinking about a black man in that time and place trying to be his own man. Yes, it's a funky club, and his wife makes more money than him, cleaning the floors and polishing the silver for the mayor's wife. But he's his own man in Alabama in 1950. And that's what he's going to lose if he loses the club. A lot of the projects I do start with a character like that.

Music has been important - almost a character, as I mentioned earlier - in several of your other films as well.

Music, to me, is not only the rhythm of the film, it's some of the soul of the film. So in something like The Secret of Roan Inish, there's that traditional Irish music, including some songs in Gaelic; in Passion Fish, there's zydeco and cajun music; in Matewan, it's that hill music, you know, that gives a real spirit to it. In some of our other movies it's been more eclectic. But Mason Daring has scored all but one of our movies, and the one that he didn't do didn't have any scored music.

Mason and I get together and we talk about the musical soul and backbone of the movie, and we listen to a lot of stuff together. In the case of Matewan, for instance, we decided, "Okay, here's this whole genre of music, but we're going to pull one thing, we're gonna take the banjo out. The banjo's a little too happy for this particular song; and, because of Flatt and Scruggs and Bonnie and Clyde, it gives you the wrong feel and rhythm. And we want to slow things down, so we'll use dobro and fiddle, and that will give us the rhythm we want from this particular music, without that foot-stomping thing.

Then when we did Eight Men Out, which was one year earlier - but it's Chicago, it's not West Virginia - we decided to go with early jazz, that King Oliver jazz sound, which does have a beat and is a lot livelier. That's a movie with faster cutting and no long dissolves.

So music really is an important kind of foundation for every movie, and the question is: "What's the music going to be?" In Lone Star it was, Okay, we have a contemporary story which we need to link to the back story that happened in 1957. One of the songs we found was Freddy Fender's "Since I Met You, Baby," which became the romantic couple's song. Now that's another good example of a song that started with Ivory Joe Hunter, who had a small hit on a race label and then it got discovered by country and western artists and became a big hit. Well, Hunter decided that he was going to make some money from it, so he wrote, not a cover version, but an almost identical song, which was "Since I Met You, Baby."

What's a "cover version"?

A cover version is when somebody does the same song but in a different style. But what he wrote was a parallel song - "Since I Met You, Baby" - that was almost the same. And then Freddy Fender, "El Bebop Kid," the guy who brought rock-and-roll to Latin America, did a cover version of it in Spanish. And Lone Star being set on the border, I was able to use both the English and Spanish versions and link those two communities as well as those two eras together.

So, music is a huge deal. And the best thing about it is that I get to buy a lot of CDs and take them off on my taxes later on, because they truly are research for the movies.


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