Fable at a crossroads

John Sayles crows wildly in his 16th feature

Feb 6, 2008 at 12:00 am

Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis is a man with a heap of woe on his shoulders. Unfortunately, besides character and narrative, Purvis' creator, writer-director-editor John Sayles, has a heap of distractions on his mind: history, sociology and musicology that all need explication. A lot unfolds during a few fateful days in 1950 in the Alabama hamlet of Harmony, but despite good intentions and some great moments, Sayles' new film still comes off as both underdeveloped and overburdened.

Pinetop is a blues piano tickler with a haunted past, the debt-ridden nightclub of the title and a gun-toting enforcer out to collect or evict. As the film opens, Pinetop is giving the hook to his headliner, an up-in-years Bessie Smith-style singer who can't compete with the up-to-date jukebox at the rival club whose festive crowds are depressingly within earshot.

Danny Glover plays Perkins in a sort of autopilot simmer as his life seemingly gets more complicated with each schematic scene. He's got the unctuously racist sheriff leaning on him. He's got a desperate plan for a big-draw Saturday that's falling apart. He's got a long-suffering wife on the verge of complicating his life by giving herself up to the Lord. He's got a perky teenage stepdaughter with a weak heart, and a guitar-slinging drifter is making eyes at her. He's got the all-seeing blind bluesman on the corner jabbering ominously about his fate. And, oh, yeah, the trouble brewing yonder among the cotton field hands is headed straight for the Honeydripper.

All of this builds to a climax that, mercifully, isn't as obvious as the steps toward it. And a movie that's built tension by giving us mostly spare blues and long silences to this point explodes into amplified R&B, the sonic equivalent of going from black and white to color, a metaphor for a threshold crossed. Add in scenes where Glover gets to show his depth, Charles S. Dutton as his comic-relief sidekick, Keb Mo's effortless turn as the blind bluesman, and a few other highlights, and you've got a worthwhile film, even if it doesn't meet its potential.

Pinetop's name, by the way, alludes to boogie-woogie great Pinetop Perkins. The name Bertha Mae Spivey refers to blues diva Victoria Spivey. Bertha Mae is played by Dr. Mable John, an R&B singer out of Detroit, sister to the late Little Willie John. One of his hits is quoted soon after we meet Bertha. We also hear a variation on the tale of Al Green and the hot-grits shower. Allusion hunters will have a field day.

There are plenty of references to the archetypal crossroads of the blues, but no guitar player goes to one at midnight to let the devil tune his axe in exchange for his soul. If only Sayles had run into a satanic script doctor where the Southern meets the Yellow Dog.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb 8-9, and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 10. It also screens at 7 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 11-13. Call 313-833-3237.

W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].