Tyler Perry’s Jazzman Blues it has everything, some things in such huge amounts that maybe it’s too much: forbidden love, drug abuse, hints of incest, a black woman pushed into being white by her scheming mother, complicated relationships between women who have reason to resent each other, and a mother figure who does laundry, helps bring babies into the world, and runs a hip juke joint. You may need to turn the movie off every now and then to catch your breath.
But Perry’s vision is welcome in a world where so few filmmakers take the opportunity to make an old-fashioned melodrama, even one that explores, as this one does, some painful historical ground. Jazzman Blues is 50 years ago: it opens in 1987 in Hopewell, Georgia, and follows major events in the lives of its characters, focusing largely on a shy young man named Bayou (played by the charming Joshua Boone), in the country. a boy who, circa 1937, falls in love with local beauty Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), a young woman strictly under the watchful eye of his grandfather. Bayou’s home life is also a mess. His father, Buster (E. Roger Mitchell), a musician with overconfidence in his own talents, despises him in favor of his older son, Willie Earl (Austin Scott), who has dutifully learned to play the trumpet to please Buster. Bayou has a beautiful singing voice inherited from her mother, Hattie Mae (Amirah Vann, in a taut and nuanced performance), a hard-working and sensible woman who tries her best to protect Bayou from the bullying of Buster and Willie Earl, risking Buster’s rage and abuse. .
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Bayou and Leanne find comfort in each other by meeting secretly at night. (He throws a paper airplane through her window as a signal—a romantic motif that is nicely echoed later in the film.) When he learns Bayou can’t read, he teaches her; they plan to run away together. But circumstances separate them. Flash forward to 1947: Bayou and Hattie Mae have left their country home and are now living in the town of Hopewell, where Hattie Mae runs a wildly successful nightclub. (She sings beautifully there every night, in addition to the usual midwifery and laundry duties.) Leanne and Bayou’s chance reunion creates momentary bliss, but also danger. Bayou leaves Hopewell for Chicago, where he finds great success as a singer in a posh club open only to white patrons. He is backed on stage by an orchestra – one of whose members is his own brother, seething with resentment – and flanked by excellent backup dancers. But Leanne’s love haunts him and he will do anything to get back to her.
That’s barely even a quarter of what’s going on Jazzman 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’s not holding back. It’s an ambitious, handsome-looking picture that attempts to capture the essence of life in the Deep South in the mid-20th century in a way that makes Movie sense, without overly romanticizing it. In this world, white people hold all the cards and pose the greatest threat. But Perry allows us to enjoy both the lushness of a Chicago nightclub and the raunchier, bluesier atmosphere of a Hattie Mae juke joint. In Chicago, the Bayou serves up a sinister reading of “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”; back home in Hopewell, he takes the stage to join Hattie Mae for a rollicking 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 singing style as superior; both are outlets for the joy and freedom of self-expression.
Perry doesn’t always have perfect control over the film’s tone: there’s a moment of jagged, realistic horror that he first effectively hints at and then outright shows, a choice that temporarily shakes the film. Whether the image is essential or needlessly traumatizing is up to the viewer, but Perry wants to make sure we get our attention, and he does. And there are some choices that require an excessive suspension of disbelief: the older versions of certain characters don’t look like the earlier versions at all. Regardless, Perry is generally attuned to what works on screen and what makes a good story. And sometimes it’s the old-school skills that need the most revival.
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