Predictable, sanitised, slow and featuring a very weak lead performance, but also a film that looks, sounds and feels good, this one ultimately adds up to considerably less than the sum of its parts.
Set in the Honeydripper, a beaten up 1950s Alabama music club struggling to adapt to the demands of the age of the jukebox and electric guitar, it tells the story of Tyrone 'Pinetree' Purvis (Glover), the piano-playing proprietor, and his efforts to save the club. With mounting debts, he signs 'Guitar Sam', a famous young New Orleans player, in a bid to put on the big night that will turn around his fortunes.
Unfortunately, that means sacking his longtime blues singer Bertha Mae. Problems with his wife Delilah (Gay Hamilton), who must choose either religion or her husband's blues club, and a subplot about two pickers who square off in the cotton fields and clash on the big night.
Needless to say, there are plenty of problems to be overcome if the big night is to be a success.
How does it play? Well, with a plot lifted from 'Saved by the Bell', and acting that is in some cases not much better, there is plenty to dislike (the honourable exception is Lisa Gay Hamilton as Delilah, who puts almost everyone else to shame with a performance of integrity and power. Yaya Costa and Gary Clark jnr. also put in good turns in the younger roles).
Even though lives and livelihoods are at stake, and menace is, theoretically at least, in the air constantly, there is not one real physical manifestation that these are tempestuous times. It is striking how nothing - not a chair or a guitar - gets broken in the entire film.
Other problems of pacing, a surfeit of subplots, each weaker than the last, and a deeply flawed effort to pull off a crescendo ending also undermine what might have been a far better film.
Chief among the failing subplots is a strand about fighting that runs through the film. Suffice to say that it ends with Glover slipping into a cringingly hammy 'Lethal Weapon' mode, replete with trite anti-violence message.
And while this film does not wear its period detail lightly - the quality of the sets perhaps being the reason for the marked reluctance to smash anything - there are oversights and false feels aplenty in the script.
The role of the sheriff (Keach) is particularly problematic. While it never does to get overly judgemental, there is a lack of comment of any kind from the filmmaker on the reflexive racism and bullying his character indulges in. It just happens, without consequence at all, almost as if it were accidentally present in the script. Ultimately, what it adds up to is incendiary language and behaviour that is never lit up one way or another.
There are good things happening too, not least how 'Honeydripper' constantly portrays the interplay of the spoken and musical cultures. The dialogue has a 'call and answer' blues and gospel tinge, and the boundaries between music and the 'real world' are successfully blurred.
And, it must be said, some of the music is excellent - plenty of earthy blues harmonica, some great old style guitar playing, 'Midnight Special' sung in a traditional jail setting, and some good electric tunes to finish off. That said, there's often a whole lot of nothing in between. There is, in fact, plenty of evidence of a reluctance to take out the scissors and cut and it's safe to say that very few audiences will be left wanting more.
Worth a look? For most people, probably not. While it’s good on some things - capturing a mood, a music and a culture – 'Honeydripper' has a surprising lack of heart, panache and charisma.