I think it’s time for me to come clean and admit that I’ve never really liked the blues. I realize that’s probably heresy in Austin – the bluesiest of all predominately white, upwardly mobile college towns – but there you have it. Maybe it’s something about the structure of the music that bothers me: those same 12 bars playing over and over – one, four, five, one, four, five. Or maybe it’s because I don’t understand why blues singers are always repeating the first line of every verse and passing it off as line two. (If your woman leaves you all alone in the first line of a song, shouldn’t she do something different in the second? Call on the phone or pick up a stone or play the trombone?) Whatever the reason, the blues and I never clicked. Until I saw Honeydripper
, Sayles’ new drama about life in a destitute African-American cotton-farming town in Jim Crow-era Alabama and the music that gave it its mythology. Glover plays Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis, an aging piano player with a past whose backwoods roadhouse, the Honeydripper, is on the verge of financial collapse. While the Honeydripper is a home away from home to a small tribe of middle-aged drunks seeking consolation in old dirges, down the road, at Toussaint’s, young folks dance and drink and spend money to the energizing new sounds of rock & roll. The future is electrified, but poor Purvis can barely even keep the lights on, much less fuel an amplifier. Like his club and the world it symbolizes, he is on the verge of extinction and, worse, irrelevance. Honeydripper
’s story isn’t anything you haven’t seen a dozen times before, but where Sayles succeeds (where Sayles always succeeds) is in his ability to dramatize the psychological and linguistic details that give identity to a subculture struggling for survival. His film feels like life, a life that is both consumed by age-old injustices and bursting with hope in the restorative power of imagination and art. Like any true bluesman, Purvis has been knocked down by his burdens but not out, and watching him reach deep into himself to find absolution in the face of paralyzing historical circumstance made me realize finally what all that damned musical repetition is for: In a world where the prejudices and disappointments of the past keep coming back to haunt the living, the best way to exorcize a demon is to call him out by name, over and over again, until the words lose their meaning. If that doesn’t work, though, you can always just turn up the guitar and drown the son of a bitch out.