A Jazzman’s Blues 2022 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Like an ice-cream shop that offers you the choice of pistachio or strawberry and nothing else, the movies Tyler Perry has been churning out for 20 years come in just two flavors: comedy and soap opera. It’s worth noting, in this case, how the flavors blend. Most often, they’re stacked right next to each other, as when Perry’s great sass-mouth frump Madea suddenly plops into the middle of a dramatic scene. Yet there’s a way that the antic, ribald broadness of Perry’s comedy bends the drama into being more over-the-top. That’s why his movies are all of a piece even when they’re all over the place. They feed you pistachio and strawberry, and by the time that’s all melted together you’re tasting one flavor. Call it Tyler Perry with Nuts.
All of which makes “A Jazzman’s Blues,” which premiered last night at the Toronto International Film Festival, a Tyler Perry movie with a new flavor. Set in the country community of Hopewell, Georgia, in the late ’30s and ’40s, it’s a sprawling tale of forbidden love, art and ambition, bone-deep racial hate, and Black people passing as white, a subject the movie tackles with an emotional explosiveness that I thought Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” lacked. It’s also a murder mystery, though in this case the mystery isn’t a whodunit so much as it is why-did-that-tragedy-happen.
“A Jazzman’s Blues” overflows with melodrama, yet it isn’t staged broadly. It’s closer to Perry’s version of a Douglas Sirk film, one that takes a romance and heightens it until the complications are growing and twisting around it like vines. Perry has publicized the fact that the script was written 27 years ago (it was, in fact, the first script he ever wrote); after finishing it, he just stuck it in a drawer and kept it there. But the years have been kind to that script. “A Jazzman’s Blues” has the aging-fine-wine feel of something deep, rich, tangy, and earthy.
In 1987, a parcel of old letters is delivered to the Georgia attorney general as evidence in a 40-year-old murder case. The film then flashes back to 1937, when Bayou (Joshua Boone), in his late teens, from a family of musicians, meets the proud, light-skinned Leanne (Solea Pfieffer). An amateur jazz singer, Bayou looks delicate enough to need someone’s protection. He’s disarmingly tentative, overshadowed by a tough mother (Amirah Vann) who’s a washer woman (and a damn good singer as well), and he’s held in contempt by his ne’er-do-well trumpet-playing father (E. Roger Mitchell) and domineering older brother, Willie Earl (Austin Scott).
So does this innocent, crumpled-up kid have it in him to make a play for love? It seems like he might be way too sensitive. But Leanne sends a paper airplane sailing into his window each night to signal that they should meet. They do, near an oak tree draped with Spanish moss, where she teaches him to read and they discover that they belong together. They have the kind of old-movie communion that seems not only romantic but spiritual. It’s a love that just is.
Leanne, however, has dark secrets that make her more vulnerable than she looks, especially when her own headstrong mother is around. After Bayou proposes, and Leanne accepts, the mother reacts by whisking the girl away, up North. Bayou writes her letters, but they go unanswered (they’re being intercepted). And when Leanne returns, in 1947, she is married — to a white man, who thinks that she’s white.
Perry is the rare filmmaker who understands the politics of Black and white as it played out in the kitchens and parlors of the South, in communities that were segregated between houses and shacks yet still had all kinds of interplay. Leanne’s passing gives her a window into the white world and some of the uglier things she would never otherwise have seen in it. It also lends the film an undercover-agent suspense. So when Bayou and Leanne rekindle their relationship, because they just can’t stop themselves, we feel the danger. This is love laced with racial nitroglycerin.
We also notice that Bayou is no longer the beaming wallflower he once was. Joshua Boone gives a remarkable performance, evolving before our eyes. Yet the more confident Bayou gets, the more love seems to drift away from him. Forced to leave Hopewell when he’s accused, falsely, of whistling at Leanne (the same accusation that, in 1955, would spur the lynching of Emmett Till), he travels with his brother up to Chicago, where they audition to perform at a whites-only supper club (where the entertainment is Black).
Bayou becomes the featured attraction, crooning standards with the smiling smoothness of Nat King Cole. But Willie Earl, consigned to the band with his trumpet, starts to drown himself in bitterness and heroin. “A Jazzman’s Blues” knowingly interweaves tropes of Black experience with a kind of studio-system finesse. The music sequences, which range from rowdy juke-joint blues jams to the beautifully staged club gigs (with twirling choreography by Debbie Allen), are exhilarating. They give the film a soulful pulse and make you wish that Perry would direct an all-out musical.
Perry savors the melodrama, yet by rooting these overripe relationships in a clear-eyed historical setting, he sustains our involvement in a rapt way that we aren’t used to in his movies. “A Jazzman’s Blues” shows you that Perry, theoretically, could have been a very different kind of filmmaker (though if so, it’s doubtful he would have been as popular or powerful). That’s something I’ve sensed when I see his television work — shows like “The Haves and the Have Nots,” which cast a thornier, more sophisticated spell than his movies do. Where the films can seem slapped together, here he draws us in with an inexorable slow-burn passion, building a tale of love and violence on twin currents of social reality and fate. “A Jazzman’s Blues” may be based on an old script, but for Perry it feels like the start of something new.