Toronto Review: Tyler Perry’s ‘A Jazzman’s Blues’

·4 min read

The mix of musical genres in the title of this Toronto Film Festival Gala Presentation reflects the wildly uneven tone of this rare drama from Tyler Perry Studios, a lush romantic musical telling the story of a Southern lynching with echoes of the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi 1955. An imminent bow on Netflix is probably the best strategy for it; Perry may have his following, but it’s hard to imagine a crossover audience for A Jazzman’s Blues.

The setting is the city of Hopewell in Georgia, 1987, and an old Black lady is listening to a TV interview with a local politician, who’s talking down competition from an African American candidate by invoking the now-familiar GOP taking point of inverse racism. “I’ve had just about enough of you, mister white man,” she tells the screen and sets off to his office. Once there, she refuses to leave, finally barging into his office with claims of a murder that occurred in 1947 and a stack of loosely bound letters that provide the evidence. The mayor sits down to read the first — presumably they must all be in arranged in order — and we are transported back to 1937, where a woman is belting out Memphis Minnie’s “If You See My Rooster” at an impromptu al fresco blues dance.

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The woman is Mom (Amirah Vann), and her family are all there: her guitar-toting husband Buster (E. Roger Mitchell) and their two sons Bayou (Joshua Boone) and Willie Earl (Austin Scott), two very different young men. Willie Earl is his father’s favorite, coarse and arrogant, but Bayou is his mother’s boy, getting his name from the depths of his soulful eyes. After disgracing himself with a terrible turn on the trumpet, Bayou meets Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), a pretty girl nicknamed Bucket in honor of the casual way her mother dumped her in the custody of her vicious grandfather. The two meet every night in the woods, but when Leanne’s social-climbing mother hears that her daughter is besotted with a poor Black boy she whisks Leanne away to the big city.

Why she does this is made clear when Leanne returns later; Bayou is running errands for Mom, a local washerwoman, when he catches sight of Leanne at the sheriff’s house, together with her husband — the sheriff’s brother. Soon to be mayor, the man has no idea that his new wife is secretly a person of color, and, despite all the wealth she has married into, Leanne is quickly horrified by the family’s casual bigotry. Naturally, she responds when Bayou makes contact, but Leanne’s mother quickly puts paid to that by accusing Bayou of wolf-whistling at a white woman. Luckily, just as a lynch mob of torch-wielding racists descends on Mom’s house, Bayou is able to get out of Dodge immediately, following Willie Earl and his owlish German manager to Chicago, where they land a prestigious residency at an upscale dance and supper club.

The Chicago scenes are the more purely enjoyable moments in the film and offer a pleasant respite from the sugar-coated grit that surrounds them. Bayou turns out to have a lovely singing voice — a smooth Sam Cooke style that certainly would have stood out in the era — and becomes the venue’s biggest draw, but Willie Earl’s days are numbered as his heroin addiction takes hold. Quite why Bayou then decides to return home for a concert at his mother’s juke joint as one of many mysteries in a film that sees quite a few characters behave strangely, Leanne’s mother for one: Whether her daughter can realistically “pass” for white or not, why take the risk of marrying her off to man just a few miles down the round from a place where everybody knows her?

Tragedy strikes with grim inevitability, but it’s all over in minutes, looping us back to the framing device and a final doozy of a twist that audiences might need more time to digest than they actually get. Again, streaming is probably the best place for it; A Jazzman’s Blues might be better seen with remote in hand, like a Sunday afternoon cable rerun of one of the classy ’50s melodramas it channels with great technical and music credits but whose intelligence and sophistication it can’t quite replicate.

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