How music changed history

John Sayles on Honeydripper.

by Jennie Kermode

As the writer and director of classics like Lone Star, Matewan and Sunshine State, John Sayles has long been a leading figure in the world of independent film. Eye For Film's Jennie Kermode caught up with him at the Glasgow Film Festival, where he was appearing as Guest of Honour and promoting his new film, Honeydripper.

JK: May I start by asking you how you feel about being chosen as Guest of Honour for the Glasgow Film Festival?

JS: It's very nice. It's a nice festival - I think it's about the ninth film festival we've been to on this tour, which we started in the 'States. They do a good job here, you know? They have interesting films and a good mix of different kinds of things. The Glasgow Film Theatre is excellent. And it's been fun! At the masterclass people asked really good questions.

JK: I really enjoyed your film.

JS: Oh, good!

JK: I wondered how you approached it, though - did you come to it initially as a film about music, or more from a socio-political angle?

JS: It kind of evolved over a while. There's this rock n' roll story - it's actually true, it turns out - about a guy named Guitar Slam who had a big hit in New Orleans before there were rock videos or album covers or television, and he just couldn't be in every place at the same time, and he partied a little too hard and so missed gigs now and then, and so there were a couple of musicians, who are very well known now, who performed as him. Just went around saying "Well, I'm Guitar Slam," and then sometimes a club owner would say "We can't afford him" or "He's not gonna show up" and they'd just find someone who could play and say "Do this song, tonight you're Guitar Slam." And nobody knew what he looked like. And that led to me writing a short story that had that element, in '93, and then I just thought about it for a couple of years and I kept thinking, "Jeez, I'd like to go back to that character when he was a young man." Because he was an old man telling the story. And usually things start with a central character, so the character that Danny Glover plays I was interested in. Who were the guys who ran those clubs? Were they gangsters, were they this, were they that..? And I liked the idea of an African American in the1950s who somehow manages to be his own man. He's not worried about losing the building - he could get another building to put a club in - he's worried about losing that status as an African American man who can walk around own and say "I'm my own boss."

JK: Is that also important because he's comparing himself to his wife and the money she brings into their household?

JS: Yeah. And so that character was the middle of it, but then I started doing research into the period. The 1950s. What else was happening? The Korean war was happening and most of the army bases were in the South, and the President had just decided to integrate the combat troops. This made an enormous impression in the South, where those guys were going to go on leave and walk into towns that were not ready for integration. So this seemed really important, in some ways because it's forgotten history. In the United States, the Korean War is the forgotten war. And that era of music that's in between the big band era and rock n' roll is forgotten music. And so it seemed like the perfect thing to make a movie about - something that people really should know more about.

JK: People have talked about the birth of that kind of music as a pivotal moment in history. Do you think that the music contributed to the way society was changing?

JS: Yeah. I think music has been a key thing in American society, and in other places too. I think that the musicians started listening to each other and secretly, sometimes, playing with each other across ethnic lines and racial lines. And the audience think "That sounds great - boy, that guy can play! I want to try to do something like that." And so what you found with rock n' roll is that when rock n' roll hit in the South, because the dance halls, the venues where bands would be playing, wanted everybody to come, and weren't set up for segregation, they would put a rope down the middle of the audience, keeping the black kids on one side and the white kids on the other. And almost every night someone would grab the rope and yank it down and they'd start dancing together. The cops would come in and say "We're gonna shut the show down," and they'd have to put the rope back again and get on different sides. So the music was literally encouraging people to break across racial lines that had been there for a hundred years. The powers-that-be associated rock n' roll with something that was starting to break down those barriers.

JK: Unfortunately, not everyone seems to get this about the film. I encountered one critic on the internet who seemed to think that thee was no music in the film until the end.

JS: If he would like to pay for our music budget, he'd be welcome.

JK: You worked with your regular composer, Mason Daring, and there was a lot of different music all the way through.

JS: Yes, and we had to buy probably eight or nine songs as well. There's music all the way through it. People aren't performing on camera that much - there's some at the beginning and some at the end - but there's a lot in the background.

JK: I was interested in the music at the start of the film.

JS: The music that the character Bertha May is singing at the beginning is actually pre-blues: it's called hokum. It's something that, in the Thirties, was very popular. She's from that Bessie Smith era, semi-retired and living on the little bit of money she has left from back when she was a big, big star. Danny Glover's character is still trying to get away with presenting live music in a club when his rival has a jukebox, and it's always a tough thing. It's just cheaper to have a jukebox. Live music is great but you've got to pay those people, and with a jukebox, people play it! It's always a temptation for bar owners just to have canned music - nowadays to take a iPod, hook it up to a speaker and make do with that.

JK: One of the other interesting things in Honeydripper was the treatment of religion. It seemed to me that there was a parallel between the religion and the music as forces in people's lives.

JS: It's interesting. In some ways when Danny Glover's character talks to the young man just before the final performance, some of what you get from that long monologue he has when he's talking about the first guy who ever played the piano is that in some ways that's his spirituality. That's the thing that he does that brings in money and represents regular life, but when he's been able to play and hook into the music, that's when he's had these states of grace. His wife used to be a singer and isn't any more. She's looking for it in religion, but even that religion is highly musical. Whenever we go to that revival tent they're singing Gospel. There's a very strong tradition in both the white and black communities in the 'States of evangelical music, but rock n' roll was always set up against that, as if the two couldn't go together - you couldn't have both.

JK: There's also the blind musician, isn't there, playing in the streets? He seemed to me like a mythic figure.

JS: He's partly mythical, yes, but he's also based in reality. Lots of small towns would have one or two blind musicians like that, playing on street corners. In this film he's a sort of magical realist touch. I like to do that in my films, to have elements that seem slightly fantastic, just to give a different perspective.

JK: Speaking of myths, you have another film at the festival too, don't you? I understand that you worked on The Spiderwick Chronicles.

JS: Yes, I did some of the writing for that, but I was one of a team of about five writers. I welcomed the chance to do the adaptation because I loved the books; they're these five great little children's books. But as a writer for hire I just do what I'm asked to do. I don't have much control over the final work. I saw the finished film recently and I loved it. I think they've done a very good job. But all that really remains of my work is the structure.

JK: So what are you doing at the moment?

JS: I'm working on a novel. I've been working on it for about two years and I got a lot of writing done during the writers' strike that's just ended, on planes and things. It's the sort of thing that they could never make into a film.

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