Jazzman Blues Review – Netflix’s soulful drama is Tyler Perry’s magnum opus

Tyler Perry didn’t become a billionaire media mogul by making fine art. He did so by mass-producing plays, films, and television series about scorned black women and their dysfunctional families who ultimately find help in Christian lessons of forgiveness, dignity, and self-worth. And as mesmerizing as it was to watch this New Orleans native, a former temp worker who never graduated from high school, write, produce, direct and star in much of this work—not least as the hoarse, gun-wielding grandmother Madea in hand-work ethic didn’t sit well with high-minded consumers who expected more from a 53-year-old black man rightfully crowing about opening one of the industry’s biggest studios in a former Confederate army base that hosted everything – from Marvel epics to Bad Boys for Life to Come to America 2.

Spike Lee would have set the critical tone against Perry a decade ago, blowing up his work as a “madhouse” and a “joke”. But when Perry, who had the last laugh by calling the She’s Gotta Have It director a soundstage, took risks, audiences for films like About Colored Girls weren’t as strong as they were for the Madea franchise. “I would love to make a film as strong as Schindler’s List,” he told an audience at a Goldman Sachs conference four years ago. “In 1995 I wrote a screenplay about a Holocaust survivor and a jazz singer. But I knew what I was building that I had to focus on… so I could build all these other things to stand on.”

Here at last is the feature, A Jazzman’s Blues, which couldn’t be more unrecognizable as a Tyler Perry production. Gone are the domineering religious themes, the ridiculous wigs, and the familiar rotation of company players who burn dozens of pages a day in single takes. (Brad Benedict, a supporting actor on BET’s White House drama The Oval, was one notable exception.) Rather, it’s a story that takes its time building characters and conflict for more than two hours before ending with blow. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s Perry’s decision to release the film on Netflix instead of challenging the current weak box office crop. The Jazzman isn’t just good for a Tyler Perry movie. It’s fine, period.

Set in rural Georgia in 1940, Jazzman begins as a teenage romance between the family’s black sheep Bayou (Joshua Boone) and Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), who is sent to live up north after Bayou proposes. Although he moves on with his life (enlisting in the service, avoiding combat, and returning home after sustaining an injury), he still carries a flame for Leanne. And when she returns to the hand of a white scion of a political dynasty, it sends chills through the black community that has known her since her time. Baio knows she’s “playing a dangerous game,” but neither can resist the urge to reconnect. When Leanne’s diabolical mother, who has sent her away from the start, catches wind of the children’s rekindled romance, she tells a lie that forces Baio to flee town with her older brother for Chicago.

That brother, Will Earl (Austin Scott), was on his way to making his fortune as a trumpet player and had an audition (sort of) set up in the hottest room in town by his mysterious manager Ira (Ryan Eggold), a guilt-ridden Holocaust survivor of the survivor. But while Bayou, a shy singer with a powerful voice, emerges as the far greater talent, Will Earl’s resentment deepens with his addiction to heroin. Like Lian, Baio is eventually drawn back home to check on his mother, whose booming juke joint business crumbles after he runs away from town. The star-crossed lovers are considering yet another plan to leave town again, this time with a baby in tow.

Everything about this movie is truly immersive. Performances are restrained. The locations, many of which are ostensibly on the Perry Studios lot, are lush. The musical numbers are decadent, no doubt thanks to Perry, who features multi-Grammy-winning jazz composer Terence Blanchard, a longtime Spike Lee collaborator. The storytelling is effective, the scenes well-paced, the handling of social and racial politics ironclad. Perry never appears on screen, swiped or otherwise. But his immense talent and resources shine through. And so is his heart.

So it took Perry 30 years to build an empire. In the end, there is no doubt that it was the right move. If he had tried to launch his career with Jazzman, the world would probably never have seen the film at all, let alone in this stunning, unadulterated form. Not only did Perry deliver on his promise—you could call this his magnum opus. But (and I can’t believe I’m writing this) his best may indeed be yet to come.

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