With A Jazzman’s Blues, Tyler Perry proves himself to be, more than anything, a reliable auteur of serviceable melodramas. The film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and will stream on Netflix on September 23, is an exercise in tropes and caricatures, a game of “spot the cliché.” Nearly all the usual suspects of Black and Biblical stereotypes make an appearance here: the tragic mulatto, the mammy, the magical negro, Cain and his brother Abel. They are assembled, like pieces of a familiar puzzle, under Perry’s assured direction and utilitarian screenplay. The result is Hollywood catnip.
The comparisons to existing projects will be inevitable because A Jazzman’s Blues is an amalgamation of what already exists. There are hints of Green Book in its depictions of the South, The Notebook in the romance, Passing, any films about Black musicians trying to make it North, and August Wilson, too. That last one is a direct inspiration. Perry has been working on the script for A Jazzman’s Blues for more than two decades, after he snuck into a production of Wilson’s Seven Curtains in Atlanta. A chance meeting with the playwright later encouraged Perry to write this script.
A Jazzman’s Blues
The Bottom Line
A serviceable melodrama.
A Jazzman’s Blues is a sprawling narrative, a story that follows a young couple from their initial meeting as teenagers to their dramatic attempts to stay in each other’s lives through adulthood. Bayou (Joshua Boone) and Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), who both grew up in a small community outside of Hopewell, Georgia, bond over the fact that they feel like outcasts. Bayou, polite and diffident, is a well of disappointment for his father, Buster (E. Roger Mitchell). Unlike his cockier and more self-assured brother Willie Earl (Austin Scott), Bayou can’t hunt or stand up for himself. He also can’t play the trumpet, a skill their father, an aspiring musician, highly values.
Buster prefers to spend time with his mother Hattie Mae (Amirah Vann), a strong-willed woman who operates a laundry service for the community. They share similar sensitivities, and Hattie Mae often defends her son against Buster’s cruelty and humiliation. When Bayou first meets Leanne, he is struck by her beauty. She is a fair-skinned Black woman with near jet-black hair, which she wears in pigtails, and powdered pink cheeks.
The two strike up an easy friendship: Every evening, Leanne throws a paper plane into Bayou’s window and the two meet under an oak tree with drooping Spanish moss. They talk about their lives, share secrets and Leanne teaches Bayou how to read. Perry applies a florid visual language throughout A Jazzman’s Blues, but especially in these scenes. Light becomes another character, bathing the young couple and their hangouts in a warm, golden glow.
Their relationship develops throughout the summer and into the rainy season when a smitten Bayou asks Leanne to marry him. The young woman — who, it turns out, is being raped by her grandfather — accepts his offer with some reluctance, knowing her family won’t allow it. And she’s right. Leanne’s mother returns from Boston to take her daughter North, where both will pass for white. Bayou is heartbroken, but his love for Leanne endures. He writes her letters every day, all of which are intercepted by Leanne’s mother, who doesn’t want her daughter to be in touch with “the washer woman’s boy.”
A Jazzman’s Blues jumps forward 10 years to 1947, when both of our lovelorn souls’ lives have changed dramatically. Bayou still lives at home and helps his mother with her business, but Buster and Willie Earl are no longer around; both abandoned the family to try and make it as musicians in Chicago. Leanne returns to Hopewell as a married woman. The film doesn’t get into her years in Boston (or much about her in general), but we know that her husband is part of a powerful and racist Georgia family.
Now in the same place again, the couple have another encounter — this time in the back of Leanne’s car, protected by the darkness and fog. They confess they are still in love with each other but, given their more complicated lives, being together poses too much of a risk. A Jazzman’s Blues dutifully works through the beats of Leanne and Bayou’s love story, which is animated by Boone and Pfeiffer’s strong performances. Boone offers an especially kinetic turn, with his penetrating gaze and buttery voice. His portrayal deepens a relatively thinly sketched character, providing viewers with the emotional anchor needed to root for Bayou.
Because he needs it. In the backdrop of Bayou’s tragic romance is his fractious relationship with his brother. The division between the two began in their childhood, when Buster openly favored Willie Earl and mocked Bayou. Willie Earl, a figure whose complexity and trauma get reduced to a heroin addiction, has always struggled to accept Bayou, whom he, ironically, perceives as the favorite. His annoyance calcifies into hatred over the years, especially after Bayou stumbles into living the artistic life Willie Earl dreamed for himself.
The brothers briefly end up in Chicago, where they perform as a joint musical act for an enraptured white audience every night. These scenes are some of the strongest in A Jazzman’s Blues, showcasing Aaron Zigmans’s jaunty score (with music arranged by Terence Blanchard) and Debbie Allen’s energetic choreography.
A Jazzman’s Blues is indulgent, a narrative feast of twists and turns. The formidable work of the cast paces us, helping viewers digest the plot and saving Perry’s screenplay from the collateral damage of its broad scope. The film is not a revelation, nor does it stray too far from Perry’s other work, but it suggests the director may be ready to move out of his comfort zone.