Fans of Cincinnati's King Records who believe that the label's post-war African-American hits changed history will find more support in Honeydripper, the 16th and latest movie from director/writer John Sayles.
It aims to tell how the Blues begat R&B and Rock & Roll with the narrative richness of a historical novel. One with a rocking soundtrack, that is. The film comes to Cincinnati Museum Center's Reakirt Auditorium 7:30 p.m. Saturday as a fund-raiser for Black Folks Make Movies.
It's not giving anything away to say the highlight of the film comes when a young man in a Southern town in 1950 plays a rave-up, Rock & Roll-prototype version of "Good Rockin' Tonight" with his electric guitar. While the song was written and recorded by Roy Brown on Deluxe Records in 1947, the classic version was recorded by Wynonie "Mr. Blues" Harris in 1948 for King. (Elvis recorded it a few years later, early in his Rockabilly career.)
In Honeydripper, Sayles wants to show how the coming of electric Blues inexorably changed America. The film's fictional story occurs in 1950 at a Deep South juke joint where an electric guitarist shows up to bring a new, exciting sound to a sleepy place.
The symbolic importance resonates with the beat new music would follow, segregation would crumble as race relations evolved, urban ideas would encroach about the rural.
Sayles wants his characters, in addition to having lives of their own, to serve as folkloric archetypes.
"I don't think anything happens in a vacuum," he said during a recent telephone interview. "When I do a film set in a specific time and place, I really do quite a bit of research on everyday life there."
As a director specializing in Americana, Sayles (who has filmed portions of some films in Cincinnati) long has sought to establish the relationship of setting time and place to the actions of multiple characters with numerous motivations. That's been the key factor in Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Sunshine State and Silver City and is natural for a director who is also a novelist and short-story writer (Los Gusanos, Pride of the Bimbos).
He then explains the importance of his subject matter in Honeydripper: "In America, we integrate first through sports and music. Even if the rest of the people still are suspicious of each other or prejudiced, athletes and musicians pay attention to each other. And Rock & Roll is an offshoot of an awful lot of stuff that went on before it — R&B, old Blues, a guy maybe playing slide guitar out on a porch."
All this in a microcosm is what's happening in the film. It occurs at a place called Honeydripper Lounge in a town named Harmony, Ala. The club is run by Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover), a fiftysomething barrelhouse piano player who is living with the tragic results of a violent streak. He's modeled somewhat on the song "Stagger Lee" and somewhat on Blues pianist Memphis Slim.
The juke joint's name has musical and other connotations.
"When we were making Sunshine State on Amelia Island (in Florida), we'd drive to American Beach, a refuge where blacks could go because it was owned by an African-American entrepreneur," Sayles recalls. "We'd pass a defunct old nightclub called the Honeydripper and I thought, 'Boy, that place could tell some stories.'
"And Roosevelt Sykes (a Blues pianist of the period) was known as The Honeydripper. And the word 'honeydripper' is a veiled reference to the male equivalent of 'jelly roll,' so there's a hint of something forbidden in that term."
The featured performer at Tyrone's club is an older woman named Bertha Mae (Mable John), whose tastefully stylized singing just doesn't pull the crowds like it used to.
Meanwhile, a young drifter arrives in Harmony named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr., a rising young Austin musician). He's carrying an electric guitar and takes a liking to Tyrone's daughter, but before he can do much with either he's arrested for vagrancy and shipped off to pick cotton by the tough sheriff (Stacy Keach).
In a defiant last stand, Tyrone books the touring Guitar Sam, based on real-life New Orleans singer-guitarist Guitar Slim, who enjoyed a hit in 1954 with the electrified Blues tune, "The Things That I Used to Do." But when Guitar Sam doesn't show, Tyrone persuades the sheriff to free Sonny for the gig so he can pose as Sam.
Sayles carefully researched Blues and R&B history in order to model his characters and their music on real figures.
"My role models for Gary Clark's character would be Chuck Berry or Ike Turner," he says. "They were young and could see what was happening when technological change occurred and were able to take advantage of it."
HONEYDRIPPER screens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Cincinnati Museum Center's Reakirt Auditorium as a fund-raiser for Black Folks Make Movies. Tickets are $20. Buy tickets and find nearby bars and restaurants here.