By Jeffrey Overstreet
Last week, on what felt like the last day of summer, I walked into my soon-to-be-demolished backyard. It’s a beautiful place, and the realization of its imminent demise provoked an unexpected surge of emotion.
My wife Anne and I pay very low rent on a wonderful 1920s house in Shoreline, Washington, and every morning we wake up grateful for our generous landlords.
But we recently learned that they’re in urgent need of overflow parking for their business—a dental clinic, just down the block. Thus, we are anticipating the arrival of noisy trucks that will dig up the productive vintage apple tree, the elegant Japanese maple, the garden plot, and proceed to “pave paradise.”
Our landlords’ plan makes sense. Their customers need more parking spaces, and our backyard is within reach. But my childhood full of Disney movies has conditioned me to frame any story like this as one of vulnerable innocents being steamrolled by evil developers and the march of progress.
Perhaps my emotional response was inspired by Danny Glover. After all, I’ve watched him go through two of these ordeals in the last few weeks.
While Glover has played a villain (Witness), a hero’s gruff sidekick (Roger “I’m too old for this shit” Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon), and a wise family man (Grand Canyon), this year he gave us two nuanced portraits of disgruntled, world-weary old-timers. In fact, it was almost the same role in both films: A cash-challenged business proprietor in danger of losing his longstanding shop beneath a tidal wave of change.
It’s a timeworn plot. But both films are inspired works from singular, visionary artists.
Be Kind Rewind comes from the wild imagination of Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In this inspiring (and implausible) comedy, Glover plays Mr. Fletcher, a soft-spoken shopkeeper who rents VHS tapes to his neighbors on a corner in downtown Passaic, New Jersey.
Honeydripper is the latest thoughtful drama from the legendary director of Lone Star and The Secret of Roan Inish—John Sayles. Here, Glover plays Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis, owner of a dilapidated jazz club called The Honeydripper.
In Be Kind Rewind, Fletcher’s shop will be shut down and replaced by a stack of new condos, unless he can raise the money to renovate the place. Since he’s stubbornly resisted switching to DVDs, he has few customers. And his claim that the shop is a historical landmark—the actual birthplace of Fats Waller—fails to earn him sympathy.
In Honeydripper, Purvis’s struggling blues lounge will be sold to interested buyers, unless he finds a way to draw a crowd and produce the rent money. Reluctantly, he considers opening the door to a new musical era, even though it requires reconciling with ghosts from his past.
Both Sayles and Gondry follow this familiar formula all the way to its Disney-esque conclusion.
In Rewind, an easily flustered cashier named Mike (Mos Def), and his accident-prone friend Jerry (Jack Black), panic when one of Jerry’s accidents wipes out Fletcher’s VHS inventory. To cover their mistake, Mike and Jerry begin producing their own remakes on VHS and renting those sloppy, frantic re-enactments out to bewildered customers. As they replace Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy, and Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2, Mike and Jerry’s deceptive solution is both preposterous and inspiring. The homemade charm of their amateur productions draws a crowd.
Mike and Jerry’s fictions—in addition to Fletcher’s own imaginative claims—rekindle their neighbors’ ability to dream, and remind them of the joy of participating in art rather than merely consuming it. Their handmade, community-theater productions of classic movies have something in common with the contagious joy of Fats Waller’s old-fashioned, hands-on musicianship.
In Honeydripper, Glover’s Purvis deceives his community in a desperate attempt to save his lounge. He advertises an upcoming concert by the famous New Orleans rock star Guitar Sam. Meanwhile, a young guitar player named Sonny wanders into town carrying a curious musical instrument—the kind that has a power cord.
It’s not hard to see where this is headed.
With a racist sheriff sniffing around (Stacey Keach in a remarkable performance that recalls Nicholson on slow-burn), and Purvis’s competition ready to shut the Honeydripper down, we know that all of the film’s storylines will collide when Sonny takes the stage. When he does, the place lights up and the music sets the film on fire.
Both movies are all about communities, change, the power of art, and deceptions crafted with the best intentions. And both films find the troubled shopkeeper and his friends turning from the paralyzing power of nostalgia and loss to a liberating and creative engagement with the future.
In both roles, Danny Glover moved me with his mournful silences, his sighs, his suspicious glances at encroaching change. In both, he leans into that change anyway and engages it with imagination, a bittersweet but beautiful decision.
I think about both films as I wander around my doomed backyard, enjoying the last flourish of summer there. I consider inventive plots that might persuade my landlords to leave the place alone. And then I consider inviting my friends and neighbors to string Christmas lights between the apple tree and the maple, throw a party on the lawn, make a movie that captures the place in its October prime, and then just let it disappear.
And hey, maybe there’ll be room for a basketball hoop in the corner of the parking lot.
(Both Be Kind Rewind and Honeydripper are available on DVD.)