Courtesy John Sayles and Maggie Renzi
A scene from John Sayles’ new film, “Honeydripper”
John Sayles sings the cotton pickin’ blues
Directed by John Sayles
22 East 12th St. near University Pl.
By Rania Richardson
“The music keeps moving forward, and if you can’t make it work, you’ll become obsolete,” said director John Sayles, referring to the plight of Danny Glover as Tyrone Purvis, the proprietor of a failing juke joint in 1950, in his new film “Honeydripper.” Set in rural Alabama amidst the legacy of slavery, bluesman Purvis recruits a fabled young guitar player (Gary Clark Jr.) in a last-ditch effort to keep his club in business.
Like Purvis who miraculously finds a way to keep his Honeydripper Lounge open in the face of eviction, Sayles is a survivor in a world that often beats down independent voices or turns them into commercial filmmakers. From his 1980 debut, “Return of the Secaucus 7,” to his current 16th feature, Sayles has doggedly pursued political, social, and racial issues in his distinctive, earnest style.
In November, at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in the northern port city in Greece, I sat down with Sayles and his life partner and producer, Maggie Renzi on a break from their busy schedule of appearances before appreciative crowds attending the first-ever complete Sayles film retrospective.
“We’re lucky the Sundance Film Festival didn’t exist when we started,” Sayles said. “We had to start from scratch with each film and there wasn’t the pressure there is now for new filmmakers, where the next movie you’re offered is something from a studio, and if that doesn’t work you’re up a creek. And, we got to pick a bunch of different movie topics.”
“And learn and grow,” added Renzi. “Also, we were not 22 years old when we started. We both had a bunch of other jobs before and were in our late 20’s when we began.”
“By this time, what’s our work and what’s our life?” Renzi continued, in response to the boundaries of their 30-plus-year partnership. “It’s is pretty much entangled. The hardest thing for us is when we’re not working at the same time. This is a really busy time for me. The film is complete so John’s work is done. He’s the ‘actor’ now and we bring him in to do his stuff, to promote the movie.”
“She pulls the strings,” Sayles added.
The film is being self-distributed, and Renzi is spearheading a grassroots marketing effort with a team of distribution professionals. There are three target niche audiences according to Sayles “people who don’t go to Hollywood movies ever, African-Americans, and blues lovers mostly white guys over 40.”
“We are also reaching out to Southerners and churchgoers,” Renzi said. The team has set up strategies to promote the film town by town, including live performances of musicians in the film, such as Eddie Shaw and Mable John.
With a pace to match a languid day during cotton season, “Honeydripper,” becomes energized during its spectacular musical numbers. Sayles co-wrote some of the songs in the film, including the defining “China Doll,” which is on the short list for an Academy Award nomination. A good soundtrack is essential for Sayles, and CDs from his previous films continue to sell well, including “Lone Star,” (1996) which was his biggest-grossing film to date at $13 million, as well as “Passion Fish” (1992) and “The Secret of Roan Inish” (1994).
“Honeydripper” features a stellar cast of primarily African-American actors, including Lisa Gay Hamilton as Mrs. Delilah Purvis, and Charles S. Dutton as sidekick Maceo Green. Period set design captures the flavor of the time, along with authentic wardrobe touches such as colorful wide ties and patterned dresses. Luscious 35mm cinematography adds richness to the film’s texture of a bygone era.