Writer-director Tyler Perry has been living with the screenplay for “A Jazzman’s Blues” for 27 years, longer than it takes most kids to grow up and move out of the house. Inspired by a chance meeting between Perry and playwright August Wilson in 1995, “A Jazzman’s Blues” is a more serious-minded version of Perry’s usual burlesques, but it’s still Tyler Perry. You can’t keep a good melodrama down.
A glowingly lensed Jim Crow-era drama, “Jazzman’s” not unlike “Green Book” or “The Help” — absent the pandering to white audiences’ anxiety about being (to paraphrase a meme) the baddies in this situation. There is one sympathetic white character, Holocaust survivor Ira (Ryan Eggold); his German accent is as exaggerated as the rest of the cast’s Southern drawls. But while the same folks who liked “Green Book” will likely enjoy “A Jazzman’s Blues,” Perry puts Black life in rural Georgia in the 1930s and ‘40s at the center of his story — no white intermediaries required.
We open on a modest clapboard home in Hopewell, Georgia circa 1987, where an elderly Black woman mutters and flips off the TV as a white politician complains that the real racists are the people who accuse him of anti-Black bias. (Same as it ever was.) She stiffly makes her way down a long country road, leaning on her walking stick as she heads to the Hopewell town hall. There, she drops off a passel of letters, telling the white mayor that the bundle has everything he needs to solve a murder that happened 40 years ago. He seems annoyed by the intrusion, but sits down to read anyway.
The letters tell the story of Bayou (Joshua Boone) and Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), two kids who grew up together in a working-class Black settlement on the outskirts of Hopewell. Bayou and Leanne fell in love as teenagers, sneaking out every night to canoodle behind a curtain of Spanish moss. But life gets in the way and 10 years later the lovers have lost touch after Leanne went to live with her mother in Boston. One day she reappears, married to a white man and passing for white. Bayou’s still there and the passion between them can’t be suppressed, despite the danger of what looks like an interracial relationship in segregated Georgia. Light-skinned Leanne behaves with an impunity that the darker-skinned Bayou, his mother (Amirah Vann), and their childhood friend Sissy (Milauna Jemai Jackson) — now working as Leanne’s housekeeper — cannot. And her carelessness will plant the seeds of tragedy.
It’s apparent that Perry worked in theater when he wrote this script. At its core, “A Jazzman’s Blues” is a soap opera full of shocking secrets, emotional confrontations, and one exceedingly satisfying slap. The mystery aspects are thin; anyone with passing knowledge of Black American history can infer early on who was killed, why, and by whom.
Similarly, Perry’s treatment of the practice of passing is one-dimensional, especially compared to Rebecca Hall’s 2021 film of the same name. Leanne doesn’t willingly renounce her Blackness, which flattens what should be a psychologically complex decision into straightforward victimhood. Perry inserts villainous outside forces that rob Leanne and Bayou of their agency, which heightens the drama of their star-crossed love while undermining the film’s moral complexity and its resonance.
Early on, Bayou waxes poetic in voiceover about the smell of “lavender and moonshine” as the camera glides over a rough wooden table groaning with beans, oysters, crabs, and corn. A New Orleans native, Perry has a deep love for Black Southern culture and he creates a colorful tapestry of love and longing, joy and pain — all set to music. However, Perry’s tendency toward broad strokes can make his dramatic flourishes read as caricature: A scene in which Bayou reveals to Leanne that he never learned to read plays like a moment from a parody awards movie on “30 Rock.”
The most likely path to awards glory for “A Jazzman’s Blues” is the title: It’s the music. The soundtrack is largely composed of new performances of jazz standards like “Rocks In My Bed,” “Pallet on the Floor,” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Legendary multi-hyphenate Debbie Allen choreographs these spirited song-and-dance numbers in a series of flashy nightclub scenes that take place when Bayou (who turns out to be a talented singer) and his trumpeter brother Willie Earl (Austin Scott) head to Chicago with Ira in search of fame.
These old favorites are paired with a new song from Terence Blanchard, “Paper Airplanes,” which first appears as a jazz ballad for Bayou and again as a barn-burning belter for Toronto-based singer Ruth B. These are ingeniously mixed by Blanchard, who also arranges the jazz standards in the film. Boone and Vann handle most of the vocals, either solo or as a mother-son duo performing at the family’s juke joint. These are the moments when “A Jazzman’s Blues” feels the most natural, which dovetails with the film’s setting: Like Black Americans in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the film finds refuge from suffering in song.
“A Jazzman’s Blues” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release the film on Friday, September 23.