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The Performance

Keb' Mo': In 'Honeydripper,' the Grammy-winning singer wanted his guitar to be an extension of his character. 'I looked at it as improvised dialogue done on a guitar.'

December 27, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

In order to portray a mysterious street-corner blues musician -- a character who is blind yet seemingly omniscient -- in the period musical drama "Honeydripper," multiple Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Keb' Mo' says he did what any blues aficionado would have done in his situation: He went out and bought a guitar. But not just any guitar: a steel-bodied National Sunburst built in the '30s that he picked up from Norm's Rare Guitars in Tarzana and paid for with his own dime.

The South Los Angeles native (government name: Kevin Moore) felt the instrument was crucial to creating his character, a wily know-it-all named Possum who serves as a dramatic foil to the film's protagonist, Danny Glover. In "Honeydripper," set in rural Alabama circa 1950, Glover portrays Tyrone Purvis, an aging bluesman fighting to keep his backwoods juke joint in business at a pivotal moment in the American musical continuum when the blues was evolving into rock 'n' roll.

"I wanted the guitar to be an extension of Possum," the 56-year-old Mo' said. "All the music in my scenes -- that was part of my dialogue. I looked at it as improvised dialogue done on a guitar."

The musician ad-libbed his period-perfect slide guitar parts on set, his bursts of music lending urgency and immediacy to the plain-spoken truths Mo's character speaks to whomever will listen. Over the course of a scant half-dozen scenes, Possum takes sardonic glee in goading Tyrone about his predicament: deep debts, strained relations with a crooked local sheriff -- and not least that the electric guitar-playing star the saloon keeper has pinned his hopes on (by booking him for a one-night-only performance) has proverbially and literally missed the train. But the guitar player always makes his point.

"Possum's a very simple guy. He's kind of this wise old sage -- but simple," said Mo'. "So I made Possum's musical style very simple; I only played in [the key of] G. A lot of those great old blues guys like John Lee Hooker played everything in one key. That was part of his voice."

"Honeydripper's" writer-director-editor, John Sayles ("Lone Star," "Eight Men Out," "The Return of the Secaucus Seven"), worked closely with Mo' to flesh out the character's background and sense of self. Still, when the well-respected indie auteur approached Mo' for the part last year, the musician -- admittedly more conversant with the lexicon of the Mississippi Delta than film history -- was basically oblivious about who it was taking him to lunch. "I hadn't even realized how important he was in film," Mo' said.

Although he has turned in a smattering of television cameos over the years, Mo's filmography lists more composer credits than big-screen appearances. Among them: He appears as a musician in "All the King's Men" ("I was backwards. No one saw my face," Mo' recalled) and stands in for blues legend Robert Johnson in the 1997 docudrama "Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life and Music of Robert Johnson" ("That was a documentary," Mo' said, indifferently).

The singer-songwriter calls "Honeydripper" his first "real movie experience" -- even if in the same breath he dismisses his effecting performance as a "glorified cameo."

"I don't consider myself a bona fide actor in any way," Mo' said. "I didn't know how to act, but I knew who I was in that part. I let that drive the train."

chris.lee@latimes.com

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Where you've seen him

Arguably modern blues music's most acclaimed singer-songwriter- guitarist, Keb' Mo' has released nine studio albums and picked up three Grammys since 1994. But his greater renown in music circles is as an in-demand backing band member who has recorded and toured with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Celine Dion, among others. No stranger to movies and television either, when Mo' has appeared in front of the camera, it's almost always with guitar in hand.

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