With 'A Jazzman's Blues,' Tyler Perry looks forward by looking back
Forbidden love, the racism of the deep South and a thorny murder-mystery are the ingredients of Tyler Perry's "A Jazzman's Blues," the writer-director's epic drama where Madea is, thankfully, nowhere to be found.
Perry traffics in heavy melodrama here and his execution is often surface-level and obvious. But it's never dull, and the scope of his story well exceeds his usual vision. "A Jazzman's Blues" marks a change for Perry and it feels, in many ways, like the movie he's been waiting to make forever.
In one sense, that's true. Perry originally conceived the film in 1995, the first script he ever wrote, and he's been sitting on it ever since. He nearly made it in the mid-'00s, just as his film career began to take off, but he's now tackling it as his 23rd film as director. The tale is steeped in so much history that its elements are evergreen.
Set in rural Georgia in the 1930s and '40s — a framing device bookends the story in the late 1980s — "A Jazzman's Blues" follows Bayou (Joshua Boone), the timid son of a hard-working mother (Amirah Vann) and an abusive trumpet-playing father (E. Roger Mitchell) who is overshadowed by his mean-spirited older brother Willie Earl (Austin Scott). Bayou is overbearingly shy, but he falls for a neighbor girl, Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), affectionately known as Bucket, who has feelings for him, too. They sneak out and rendezvous every summertime night underneath a massive oak tree.
Their love is pure and innocent, but their love story grows as knotty as the wood on that tree. She goes off to college in Boston, and the letters he writes to her go undelivered. When she comes home, she's married — to a White man, no less, and is passing as White herself. Yet her feelings for Bayou remain, as does his love for her, even though if they're caught together it's enough to get them both killed.
A risky dalliance between them sends Bayou north to Chicago, where he gets a job performing in a jazz club for all-White crowds. His brother is with him in the band, although his heroin use has him falling asleep at gigs; Perry doesn't traffic in the art of subtlety. And we know from the framing of the story that a murder looms on the horizon. The pieces are in place, the mystery is when and how it comes.
There's no doubt Perry is painting with broad strokes from fat brushes, but he spends enough time with his characters that the audience gets to know them and feel the risks associated with their actions. In the lead role, Boone has to do a lot of heavy lifting, and he's not always up to the task — the scenes of him performing music on stage, especially, leave something to be desired — although Pfeiffer is quite good, and the story of her passing carries with it a palpable sense of suspense from scene to scene.
Perry can't resist hammering his message home with an oversized mallet in the closing moments, through the clunky resolution of the narrative device. But "A Jazzman's Blues" is a confident, assured work that finds Perry playing in a different key than we're used to. It's a style that suits him well, and it makes you wonder what other old scripts he might have laying around.
'A Jazzman's Blues'
Rated R: for some drug use, violent images, rape, brief sexuality and language
Running time: 127 minutes