Tyler Perry fans have been through it all, from his wild adventures with Madea to his unsubtly askew religious melodramas. Reflecting on his career, the melodramas akin to A Jazzman’s Blues have been great – I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009), For Colored Girls (2010), and The Family That Preys (2008) – yet they don’t match the surprising amount of heart in this new film. Tyler Perry has said on many occasions that writing many of his films felt more like work than passion, specifically within the Madea world. But his melodramas offer unique views on individualism, loving your cultural identity, and social class and have held up comparatively. A Jazzman’s Blues is grand in scale, another continuous example of Tyler Perry at his best, except this time, it’s more personal. He delivers a time capsule that is straight to the point and serves its message on a properly cooked platter despite having the usual Perry formula; it’s not surprising this may be his dramatic opus.
I’m not going to stand on a soapbox and proclaim that Tyler Perry has shifted to become some grand auteur – he’s more an intellectually savvy businessman and filmmaker that turns out projects that frequently understand his audience. Because of this, his scripts are rushed, making them lack perspective while aiming to tug at the heartstrings with melodrama; still, always more business than passion. But it’s always felt like work for him. What makes A Jazzman’s Blues different? It isn’t like his rushed projects that have the rush written all over them like Good Deeds (2012) and instead comes from a steadier screenplay that got dusted off the shelves for all of its heart and resonance. Written in 1995, Tyler Perry wrote this with authenticity and heart, stemming from his youth and his relationship with his father, while tying their familial stories together in a profound way.
In an interview with Chris Wallace, Tyler Perry noted, “When I started writing Bayou’s character, played by Joshua Boone, his father despised him [and it] kind of took me to my own father and some of the problems that my father had with me is because I was a brown child. His favorite child was they very fair child. My father grew up in the Jim Crow south and they do it a whole lot of things [sic]. So there was this mentality of the lighter your skin, the better you were and that lived on and still lives on today.” Perry’s apposite life experience of colorism brings genuine perspective to the picture. Despite his faults, which are many, he stays true to his experiences. He’s always written about the people around him, understanding their experiences and presenting them to a specific audience that sometimes misses a wider appreciation. Yet, he does give a platform for darker-skinned black actors to make a presence. It’s like when I watched Encanto for the first time. I was instantly struck by its race and skin color representation, speaking truth to Colombia’s demographic. Keeping this in mind, viewing A Jazzman’s Blues, I noticed it obtained an extra layer of depth beyond the story – his focus on colorism becomes more pertinent.
Unfortunately, the script feels like Tyler Perry needed to give it further attention, as certain instances come with slight shock only to be a precursor toward certain characters’ actions. Like when it was revealed to us that Willie Earle’s paranoia derived from excessive drug use. But the film doesn’t try to harp on things too long, letting it settle and sizzle before continuing to the next platter. Bayou and Willie Earle have the music in their genes along with broken souls, reflecting the scratches, wear and tear of their being, as if their lives were one long dusty well-played vinyl record. Leanne has requited love that’s seen with disdain by others, contrasting the jerky nature of Bayou’s brother and father. From there, you follow a simple but resonant storyline that focuses on delivering its themes in an impactful way and is less about external stopgaps that would have hindered its pacing. It’s the most glaring flaw. A Jazzman’s Blues is a simple film with great depth, despite the slight itch for more of the music, but there is enough here to have a foundation in its sense for cultural identity.
The performances of Joshua Boone and Solea Pfieffer shine as bright as the stage Bayou, Boone’s character, performs on later in the film. They give these deeply resonant and loving performances that stay with you till the end; the supporting characters boast that connectivity, allowing us to sense their fear, hatred, and jealousy, all without skipping a beat. It’s a testament as the setting speaks more to Perry’s familial relationship with his father, extending it further toward his father’s time in the Jim Crow south and never losing itself in the material like Temptations (2013) or The Single Moms Club (2014), which are over-indulgent in their message. Here, the message is clear and speaks for itself, as the setting and compositional scope speak for the dynamic between everyone involved, specifically within the meat on the movie’s bones. The main course is given to the audience graciously, shot with naturalistic portrayals that embody the central emotions of the work.
Predominantly set in the late 1930s, Bayou and Leanne are two young adults in love and confined within a world that expresses hate beyond race, spreading into colorism and showing us the depravity of the South. Bayou is different from his brother Willie Earle, a physically macho, mentally weak, and talented musician like their father, Buster, and Bayou, their strong-willed mother, Hattie Mae. Falling in love was never in the cards for Bayou, and after Leanne’s grandfather learned of their romance, he rapes her and blames it on Bayou, making Leanne’s mother take her away far from that community for good. Their love is eventually rekindled years after they are forced apart with no means of correspondence. Unfortunately, Leanne’s confined to “loving” her new white husband while her black mother, Ehtel, is bent on being safe beneath the white man’s hold no matter the cost, specifically with the power and wealth they wield during this time. Tyler Perry streamlines the plot, giving us an essence of everything, from the strict racial and color divide, beautifully shot and composed musical stage performances, and fantastic synergy amongst the actors, despite not spending much time outside the immediate focus – cultural identity and love.
Though racism is as pertinent as one would expect for its setting, Tyler Perry also wants us to understand the depth of colorism within the black community, stemming from similar racial purviews generally seen from a white person. Leanne and Willie Earle are both light-skinned compared to the others and given preferential treatment depending on the situation – Willie Earle, Bayou, and their father’s dynamic – Leanne with her white husband. Leanne’s mother is a shade darker but lighter than most. with the perspective of the racist white hierarchy, Leanne is seen as a beautiful wife who won’t turn heads, and her mother uses that to find stability in life as Leanne doesn’t come from money. She’s always loved Bayou and keeps loving Bayou even when the bleak transgressions of her family and accusations of his untoward behavior causes him to flee town.
There is depth beyond the surface level as the film’s message begins to unfurl: darker your skin, the worst your fate becomes. Despite both mirroring contrasting parental figures, Willie-Earle is light skin, but their father is darker – it’s the opposite for Bayou and Hattie Mae – but their fates don’t align. The film offers more hopeful character depth than the average Tyler Perry melodrama. It takes you through the melodramatic ringer and you can’t help but find it tugging at certain emotional strings due to the film having direction and heart from all involved.
The actors give it their all, bringing these characters to life and giving us layers more resonant than what the script writes for them. More cinematic than Perry’s stage adaptations, it continuously and effectively reminds us through delicate craftsmanship from cinematographer Brett Pawlak (Just Mercy, 2019) and devoted Perry editor Maysie Hoy (editor of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992)). They get a lot to work with and provide the characters a rich stage for their expressions. They take us through a tour of glamour and big-band jazz performances, pitting the brothers against each other and continuing to give us these fantastic performances before their return home. It’s here where they give us one of the most impactful and emotionally heartbreaking scenes in any Tyler Perry film. I was left shaken and teary-eyed, as the shots bring home a reflection of horrid times for the Black community in the United States, especially in the South.
A Jazzman’s Blues is a triumph for Tyler Perry, and though it isn’t a high bar to exceed, he does exceed it momentously. It’s a refreshing and powerful film that’s a breeze to get through while offering properly executed emotional beats and excellent technical elements that gives it that feel of the 1930s, whether it’s the production design or the clean editing that keeps the film flowing. Once the two lovers meet we’re in it for the long-haul, as satisfying and engaging as heightened melodrama can be. It may not be for everyone, but for the Tyler Perry fans, or just curious fans of melodramas, you will be in for a solid emotional journey.