Tyler Perry’s A Jazzman’s Blues has everything, some things in such prodigious quantities that it might be a little too much: forbidden love, drug abuse, hints of incest, a Black woman who’s pushed into passing for white by her scheming mother, complex relationships between women who have every reason to resent each other, and a maternal figure who takes in laundry, helps bring babies into the world and runs a hoppin’ juke joint. It might be necessary to stop watching the film every so often to take a deep breath.
But Perry’s vision is welcome in a world where so few filmmakers will take a chance on making an old-fashioned melodrama, even one that also explores, as this one does, some painful historical underpinnings. A Jazzman’s Blues has a sweep of 50 years: It opens in Hopewell, Georgia, in 1987, and tracks back to the major events in its characters’ lives, focusing largely on a shy young man named Bayou (played by the charming Joshua Boone), a country kid who, circa 1937, falls in love with local beauty Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), a young woman who’s kept under strict watch by her grandfather. Bayou’s home life is troubled, too. Buster Mitchell (Buster), a music lover who puts too much faith in his abilities, dislikes Bayou. Austin Scott, Willie Earl, is Buster’s older son and has taught himself trumpet to please Buster. Bayou has a beautiful singing voice, inherited from his mother, Hattie Mae (Amirah Vann, in a taut, nuanced performance), a hardworking and sensible woman who tries her best to protect Bayou from Buster and Willie Earl’s bullying, risking Buster’s fury and abuse.
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Austin Scott and Amirah vann are son and daughter in music.
Bayou and Leanne seek solace in each other, meeting secretly at night. She sends him a paper plane through her window to signal. This is a lovely romantic scene that makes a great echo in later scenes. When she learns Bayou can’t read, she teaches him; they make plans to run off together. They are separated by circumstances. Fast forward to 1947. Bayou Mae and Hattie Mae moved from their farm and settled in Hopewell. Hattie Mae owns a highly successful nightclub. The singer sings every night and does laundry as well as performing in midwifery gigs. Bayou and Leanne have a chance meeting that sparks both joyous moments but also dangerous times. Bayou departs Hopewell to Chicago where he is a star singer in a club that caters exclusively to white patrons. Onstage, he’s backed by an orchestra—one of its members is his own brother, who seethes with resentment—and flanked by gorgeous backup dancers. But it’s Leanne’s love that haunts him, and he’ll do anything to get back to her.
That’s barely even a quarter of what happens in A Jazzman’s Blues. Perry has been hoping to make this film for more than 25 years—a conversation with August Wilson was an early inspiration—and he doesn’t hold back. It is a handsome, ambitious picture with a beautiful look that captures the essence of the South during the middle 20th century. Film It’s not romanticized in a negative way. In this world, it’s white people who hold all the cards, and who pose the biggest threat. But Perry also allows us to take pleasure in both the lavishness of the Chicago nightclub and the gutsier, bluesier vibe of Hattie Mae’s juke joint. In Chicago, Bayou serves up a buttery reading of “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”; at home in Hopewell, he takes the stage to join Hattie Mae in a rolling version of “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.” (The featured songs were arranged and produced by Terence Blanchard.) Perry doesn’t present one venue, or one way of singing, as better than the other; both are outlets for the joy and freedom of self-expression.
Perry may not always have perfect control of the movie’s tone: There’s a moment of jagged, realistic horror that he first alludes to, effectively, and then shows outright, a choice that temporarily rattles the movie. Perry does his best to grab our attention. Some choices require a suspension of disbelief. Older versions of characters are very different from the originals. Perry has a great sense of what is good and what doesn’t. And sometimes it’s the old-school skills that most need reviving.
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