Film: Good Rockin' Tonight

John Sayles' Honeydripper mines old-school R&B and Blues

Emerging Pictures

Danny Glover is Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis in Honeydripper.

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. That's a tall order. But Sayles, who was himself born in 1950, understands his task well.

"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

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