Dir/scr: John Sayles. US. 2007. 123mins.

Relaxed, confident and very percussive in texture and mood, John Sayles' musical fable Honeydripper is the director's strongest work since Lone Star (1996). The story of a juke joint proprietor taking whatever measures necessary to save his country roadhouse, the movie showcases the film-maker and novelist's affectionate and lyrical grasp of character, humour and dramatic detail.

Taking the model of David Lynch's Inland Empire, Sayles is self-distributing this, his 16th feature, in conjunction with Ira Deutchman's Emerging Pictures. Abetted by a marvelously detailed and intricate lead performance by Danny Glover, his best work since Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger, Honeydripper received a rapturous audience response at its Toronto world premiere. Powered by a strong cast that adroitly mixes established and unknown actors, excellent production values and a tangy bluegrass and rhythm and blues soundtrack, the movie holds strong niche appeal for urban markets and Southern communities.

Represented in international territories by Rezo Films, the movie plays in competition at San Sebastian. Internationally the movie's best prospects are likely in ancillary platforms, particularly DVD.

Since his debut, The Return Of The Secaucus Seven, Sayles' best work has focused on groups, examining the interlay of class, race, social values and political urgency. Set in the Jim Crow American south of Alabama in 1950, Honeydripper's plot is arranged anecdotally, a loose collection of stories, monologues, memories, linked by music and the vibrant collection of personalities. Not coincidentally Sayles' production company, Anarchists' Convention, is named for the title of his first collection of short stories, and several of the characters are imported from Sayles' recent fiction.

The works appears flush with autobiographical implications of the difficulties and vicissitudes of the independent artist. The colourful and quixotic owner of the Honeydripper Lounge, Tyrone (Glover) is a proud and boastful man with a quick humour and tragic history.

He's a piano player whose juke joint struggles to stay afloat in the face of mounting debts, declining patronage and a more prosperous rival located across the street. Tyrone pulls out all the stops to save his club, hiring the near mythical electric playing virtuoso Guitar Sam to headline a one-night showstopper.

His plan entails all manner of theatrical fakery, back dealing and subterfuge. Sayles collapses the primary story and develops conflict, character detail and emotional volatility through his novelistic accumulation of voices and expressive faces. These colourful, leisurely shaped vignettes allow for a thrilling and fluid characterization that perfectly balances humour, speech patterns and irony, like the train station employee who notes ruefully, 'The only night I spent in a jail was in a town called Liberty.'

Working in a milieu more dreamed about than fully recreated, Sayles gently upbraids the mythology and poetry of southern blues, riffing on the legend Robert Johnson, or the cultural transformation brought about by the electric guitar. Playing off the tradition of oral storytelling indigenous to American black southern culture, Sayles locates conflict through behaviour and personality, such as Tyrone's loyal lieutenant Maceo (Dutton), or his religiously inclined though patient wife (Hamilton) whose piety and demands her husband surrender his grandeur produce all manner of tension and unruliness between the couple.

These sharp, telling moments imbue the work with a musical flow. Newcomer Yaya DaCosta delivers a lovely, sharp performance as the couple's teenage daughter.

If the portrait of racial politics, embodied by the rule of law imposed by the stern, crusty sheriff (Keach) is more fanciful than entirely believable, Sayles acknowledges the racial divide, seen in the character of the itinerant guitar player Sonny (Clark, Jr), in a manner that makes its point more through observation than argument. The movie ends on a triumphant note, but it is shrouded in grace and irony.

Dick Pope's cinematography is wonderfully understated in soaking up the local flavour and the score by Mason Daring is incandescent. It is consistent with a movie that swoops, soars and gets its groove on.

Production companies
Honeydripper Films (US)
Anarchists' Convention Films (US)

International sales
Rezo Films
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US distributor
Emerging Pictures

Maggie Renzi

Dick Pope

Production designer
Toby Corbett

Mason Daring

John Sayles

Danny Glover
Lisa Gay Hamilton
Yaya DaCosta
Charles S Dutton
Vondie Curtis Hall
Gary Clark, Jr
Dr Mable John
Stacy Keach
Nagee Clay
Absalom Adams
Arthur Lee Williams