Of Blues of a jazz manTyler Perry proves that he is above all a reliable author of useful melodramas. The film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and will stream on Netflix on September 23, is an exercise in figures of speech and caricatures, a game of “find the cliché.” Almost all the usual suspects of black and biblical stereotypes appear here: the tragic mulatto, the mummy, the magical negro, Cain and his brother Abel. They are assembled, like pieces of a well-known puzzle, under Perry’s confident direction and utilitarian screenplay. The result is Hollywood catnip.
The comparisons with existing projects will be inevitable because: Blues of a jazz man is an amalgamation of what already exists. There are hints of Green Book in his depictions of the South, The notebook in the romance, pass, all the movies about black musicians trying to make the north, and also about August Wilson. The latter is a direct source of inspiration. Perry has been working on the script for Blues of a jazz man for more than two decades after being in a production of Wilson’s Seven Curtains in Atlanta. A chance meeting with the playwright later encouraged Perry to write this script.
Blues of a jazz man
It comes down to
A useful melodrama.
Blues of a jazz man is an extended story, one that follows a young couple from their first meeting as teenagers to their dramatic attempts to stay in each other’s lives into adulthood. Bayou (Joshua Boone) and Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), who both grew up in a small community outside Hopewell, Georgia, bond over feeling like outcasts. Bayou, polite and timid, is a source of disappointment to his father, Buster (E. Roger Mitchell). Unlike his cocky and more confident brother Willie Earl (Austin Scott), Bayou can’t hunt or stand up for himself. He also cannot play the trumpet, a skill highly valued by their father, an aspiring musician.
Buster prefers to spend time with his mother Hattie Mae (Amirah Vann), a strong-willed woman who operates a community laundry service. They share similar sensibilities, and Hattie Mae often defends her son from Buster’s cruelty and humiliation. When Bayou first meets Leanne, he is struck by her beauty. She is a white black woman with almost jet black hair, which she wears in pigtails, and powder pink cheeks.
The two form an easy friendship: every night Leanne throws a paper plane into Bayou’s window and the two meet under an oak tree with hanging Spanish moss. They talk about their lives, share secrets and Leanne teaches Bayou to read. Perry applies a flowery imagery everywhere Blues of a jazz man, but especially in these scenes. Light becomes a different character, bathing the young couple and their hangouts in a warm, golden glow.
Their relationship develops over the summer and into the rainy season when a lovelorn Bayou proposes to Leanne. The young woman – who, it turns out, is being raped by her grandfather – reluctantly accepts his offer, knowing her family won’t allow it. And she’s right. Leanne’s mother returns from Boston to take her daughter North, where they will both pass for white. Bayou is heartbroken, but his love for Leanne lasts. He writes her letters every day, all of which are intercepted by Leanne’s mother, who does not want her daughter to come into contact with ‘the laundress’ boy.
Blues of a jazz man jumps 10 years ahead to 1947, when the lives of both of our souls in love have changed drastically. Bayou still lives at home and helps his mother run her business, but Buster and Willie Earl are gone; both left the family to try and make it as musicians in Chicago. Leanne returns to Hopewell as a married woman. The film doesn’t go into her Boston years (or much about her in general), but we do know that her husband is part of a powerful and racist family in Georgia.
Now back in the same spot, the pair have another meeting – this time in the back of Leanne’s car, protected by the darkness and fog. They admit they’re still in love, but given their more complicated life together, being together poses too much of a risk. Blues of a jazz man dutifully works through the beats of Leanne and Bayou’s love story, which is animated by Boone and Pfeiffer’s strong performances. Boone offers a very kinetic turn, with his penetrating gaze and buttery voice. His portrayal deepens a relatively thinly outlined character and provides viewers with the emotional anchor needed to root for Bayou.
Because he needs it. The background to Bayou’s tragic romance is his shaky relationship with his brother. The division between the two began in their childhood, when Buster openly preferred Willie Earl and mocked Bayou. Willie Earl, a figure whose complexity and trauma is reduced to a heroin addiction, has always struggled to accept Bayou, whom he ironically considers the favourite. His annoyance calcifies to hatred over the years, especially after Bayou enters the artistic life Willie Earl had dreamed for himself.
The brothers briefly end up in Chicago, where they perform every evening as a joint musical act for a delighted white audience. These scenes are some of the strongest in Blues of a jazz manwith the cheerful score by Aaron Zigmans (with music arranged by Terence Blanchard) and the energetic choreography by Debbie Allen.
Blues of a jazz man is indulgent, a narrative feast of twists and turns. The cast’s formidable work gets us moving, helping viewers digest the plot and save Perry’s screenplay from the collateral damage of its wide scope. The film isn’t a revelation, nor does it stray too far from Perry’s other work, but it does suggest that the director may be ready to step out of his comfort zone.