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There's an intriguing notion about the roots of rock 'n' roll nestled in this lackadaisical John Sayles opus, though it's pursued with more charm than energy.

Central to the story: a 1950s Alabama lounge that's reached a crisis point. Proprietor "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover) is going broke serving up blues and boogie-woogie to the local soldiers and cotton-pickers, who are finding hipper sounds on jukeboxes at a joint across his parking lot.

To stave off foreclosure by the sheriff (Stacy Keach), Pine Top books a one-night gig by regional blues star Guitar Sam. But when the train pulls in, Sam's not on it, so Pine Top decides to pass off a young drifter (newcomer and self-taught guitarist Gary Clark Jr.) as the missing headliner. Things go, as you might imagine, awry.

A strong and largely African-American cast (Charles S. Dutton, Vondie Curtis Hall, Lisa Gay Hamilton, plus blues artists Keb Mo and Dr. Mable John) turns in smart performances, but they can only go so far to make Sayles' slackly paced story sing.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.