Filmmaker John Sayles returns with a look at the birth of rock

Ed Symkus

Maverick writer-director-editor John Sayles almost always masters that one crucial part of filmmaking — he gives his movies great endings.

 His most talked about was the sudden go-to-black one in “Limbo.” His most memorable was the wrenching one of a helpless, wailing David Strathairn in “City of Hope.” He’s got another good one — we won’t ruin it — in his newest film, the blues-drenched “Honeydripper,” a fictional story of the birth of rock ’n’ roll in the Deep South of 1950.

 The film is bookended by a couple of young kids pretending to play homemade musical instruments: a diddley bow and a drawing of a piano keyboard, silently at the beginning, loud and raucously at the end.

 “The song for the final credits is [Barrence Whitfield’s] ‘The Music Keeps Moving On’,” explains Sayles during a recent promotional stop in Boston. “I read the biographies and autobiographies of a lot of these blues guys, and many of them said, ‘I started playing a diddley bow’ or ‘I would draw the piano keys on a 2 x 4 and just kind of imagine it in my head.’ I wanted a feeling that, at the end, these kids are thinking the music in their head is electric guitar. They’re the next generation, but by the time they’re playing, they’re gonna be rock ’n’ roll guys.”

 Sayles does quite a bit of thinking, and writing, about his characters before filming starts, even if what he puts on the page doesn’t actually appear on the screen.

 For instance there’s Sonny (young bluesman Gary Clark Jr.) who hops off a freight train in a small Alabama town carrying a duffel bag and a guitar case, hoping to pick up a little cash, but finding trouble instead. Late in the film, we get a look at what’s inside that case: a guitar like no one in that town had ever seen, with wires attached.

 “I write a biography for every character,” says Sayles. “My idea is that that kid read an article in ‘Popular Electronics’ about Les Paul, and then he would’ve built it himself because he’s a radio guy from the army and a guitar player.”

 There’s also the odd couple of aging blues singer Bertha Mae (Dr. Mabel John) and her younger, longtime husband Slick (Vondie Curtis-Hall), the one guy still applauding her at the rundown Honeydripper Lounge.

 “Their biography has stuff about their relationship,” says Sayles. “It started when she was probably in her mid-30s and he was a 19- or 20-year-old, good-looking kid. And somehow they’re still together, even though she’s started goin’ down. He was probably her chauffeur at first, and bodyguard and boyfriend at the same time.”

 The script was inspired by Sayles’ 1993 short story “Keeping Time,” about how when tastes and styles in music change, some musicians keep hanging on to the old ways. It’s now told through the eyes of Tyrone (Danny Glover), a one-time blues and boogie woogie piano player who owns the failing Honeydripper and is trying to find a way to stay afloat. He thinks the answer is to bring in an electric guitarist to attract young customers.

 Sayles wrote the script pretty quickly, he says, because he carries so many things in his head for such a long time.

 “There’s a line about ‘a man got to go through the gates o’ hell to get a piece o’ cheese,’ ” says Sayles, quoting a line from the film. “I heard that at the Port Authority bus station maybe 20 years ago from a guy who was panhandling. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is where that line goes.’ ”

 Sayles’ head is certainly filled with music, and has been since he was a kid in Schenectady, putting a transistor radio under his pillow so his parents wouldn’t hear it, and listening to Boom Boom Brannigan spin the hits of the day.

 “The first record I had was ‘Hound Dog’,” he recalls. “But as you get a little bit older, you hear a little of this and a little of that, and you wish there was more of that in the songs. So for me, Sam Cooke led me to gospel, and then Ray Charles led me to the blues. I liked Frank Sinatra and Perry Como when I was growing up. But I also liked this kind of wild stuff. One night I heard Bob Dylan, who I’d never heard before, sing ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ on some station. Then I didn’t hear it again for maybe half a year. So I wasn’t sure I’d really heard it. Because it seemed like it was from outer space. It was that different from anything else on the radio.”

 A “brush with greatness” involved seeing Janis Joplin play at Saratoga “with a terrible band, when she wanted to be Tina Turner,” he says of Joplin’s Kozmic Blues days. After the gig, Sayles “stopped at a bar and she was there, singing along with the juke box, for beers. She was this little, little person with a huge voice.”

 Moving to Boston in the mid-’70s, Sayles got turned on to movies he’d heard about but never seen.

 “We lived in East Boston, and there was ‘dime time,’ ” he remembers, smiling. “If you were unemployed, which I was sometimes, you could ride the subway for a dime from 10 to 2. So we would take that dime and go to the Park Square Cinema or to the Orson Welles, and two or three other places that were revival houses. I didn’t see a foreign movie until I was in college, so I did a lot of catching up then. I would look for work for a while. Then I’d say, ‘I looked for work until noon! I have to reward myself.’ So I’d go to a 2 o’clock show, and it would take a dime to get there.”

 His lucky break — writing or doctoring scripts for Roger Corman — came after he was established as a short story writer. He credits his good fortune to Corman’s assistant and sometime scriptwriter Frances Doel. Luckily, she was an Atlantic Magazine reader.

 “I had a couple of stories in Atlantic Magazine,” says Sayles. “When I first got an agent, she got a call from Frances who said, ‘We need a rewrite on this movie ‘Piranha.’ And my agent said, ‘Well, I have a new writer named John Sayles.’ And Frances said, ‘The short story writer?’ ”

 The rest is independent film history.