Tyler Perry did not become a billionaire media mogul by making fine art. He did it by mass-producing plays, films and TV series about scorned Black women and their dysfunctional families who ultimately find succor in Christian lessons in forgiveness, dignity and self-worth. And as mesmerizing as it’s been to watch this New Orleans-born, former temp worker who never finished high school write, produce, direct and act in much of this work – not least as the tart-tongued, pistol wielding granny Madea – the work ethic didn’t exactly endear him to highbrow consumers who expected more of a 53-year-old Black man who rightly crows about opening one of the industry’s largest studio lots on a former Confederate army base that’s played host to everything from Marvel epics to Bad Boys for Life to Coming to America 2.
Spike Lee would set the critical tone against Perry a decade ago, blasting his work as “coonery” and “buffoonery”. But when Perry, who got the last laugh by naming a sound stage after the She’s Gotta Have It director, took risks, the audiences for films like For Colored Girls weren’t nearly as robust as they were for the Madea franchise. “I would love to go do a movie that’s as powerful as Schindler’s List,” he told an audience at a Goldman Sachs conference four years ago. “I wrote a script in 1995 about a Holocaust survivor and a jazz singer. But I knew what I was building I had to focus on … so that I could build all these other things to stand on.”
Here at last is that feature, A Jazzman’s Blues, which couldn’t be more unrecognizable as a Tyler Perry production. Gone are the overbearing religious themes, the risible wigs and the familiar rotation of company players burning through tens of pages of a day in single takes. (Brad Benedict, a supporting actor in the BET White House drama The Oval, was one notable exception.) Rather, this is a story that takes its time building characters and conflict over the course of two-plus hours before winding down with a wallop. If there’s anything to lament, it’s Perry’s decision to drop the film on Netflix instead of challenging the current box office’s weak crop. Jazzman isn’t just good for a Tyler Perry movie. It’s good full stop.
Set in rural Georgia in 1940, Jazzman starts as a teen romance between family black sheep Bayou (Joshua Boone) and Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), who is sent away to live up north after Bayou proposes marriage. Even though he goes on with his life (enlists in the service, dodges combat and returns home after suffering an injury), he still carries a flame for Leanne. And when she returns on the arm of a white scion of a political dynasty, it sends shivers through the Black community who knew her back when. Bayou knows she’s “playing a dangerous game”, but neither can resist the urge to reconnect. When Leanne’s diabolical mother, who sent her away to begin with, catches wind of the kids’ rekindled romance, she tells a lie that forces Bayou to skip town with his older brother for Chicago.
That brother, Wille Earl (Austin Scott), was off to make his fortune as a trumpet player and had an audition (kind of) set up in the hottest room in town by his mysterious manager Ira (Ryan Eggold), a Holocaust survivor with acute survivor’s guilt. But as Bayou, a shy singer with a big voice, emerges as the much bigger talent, Wille Earl’s resentment deepens with his addiction to heroin. Like Leanne, Bayou is eventually lured back home to check in on his mother, whose thriving juke joint business grew fallow after he escaped town. The star-crossed lovers hitch another plan to ditch town again, this time with a baby in their party.
Everything about this film is genuinely absorbing. The performances are restrained. The locations, many of them seemingly on the Perry Studios lot, are lush. The musical numbers are decadent, no doubt thanks to Perry roping in the multi-Grammy winning jazz composer Terence Blanchard, a longtime Spike Lee collaborator. The storytelling is efficient, the scenes well-paced, the command of social and racial politics ironclad. Perry never shows up on screen, in drag or otherwise. But his vast talent and resources shine through. And so does his heart.
So Perry took 30 years to build an empire. In the end, there’s no doubt it was the right move. If he had tried starting his career with Jazzman, the world probably never sees the film at all, let alone in this stunning, unadulterated form. Perry not only fulfilled his promise – you could call this his magnum opus. But (and I can’t believe I’m writing this) his best might indeed be yet to come.