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 Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi 1955. An impending arc on Netflix is probably the best strategy for this; Perry may have his following, but it’s hard to imagine a crossover audience for The blues of a jazzman.
The setting is the town of Hopewell, Georgia, 1987, and an old black lady listens to a television interview with a local politician, who denounces competition from an African-American candidate by invoking the now familiar GOP taking the point of reverse racism. “I’ve had enough of you, mister white man,” she says on the screen and heads for her office. Once there, she refuses to leave, eventually barging into his office with allegations 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 one – they should all probably be put in order – and we’re transported to 1937, where a woman sings Memphis Minnie’s “If You See My Rooster” during an impromptu blues dance outside.
The woman is a mom (Amirah Vann), and her whole family is there: her guitarist 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, rude and arrogant, but Bayou is his mother’s boy, drawing his name from deep in her soulful eyes. After disgracing himself with a terrible trumpet blast, Bayou meets Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), a pretty girl nicknamed Bucket in honor of the flippant way her mother threw her into the care of her vicious grandfather. The two meet every night in the woods, but when Leanne’s socially-climbing mother learns that her daughter is in love with a poor black boy, she takes Leanne to the big city.
Why she does this is made clear when Leanne later returns; Bayou is shopping for mom, a local laundress, when he spots Leanne at the sheriff’s, with her husband, the sheriff’s brother. Soon-to-be mayor, the man has no idea his new wife is secretly a person of color, and despite all the wealth she married Leanne is quickly horrified by the family’s occasional bigotry. Naturally, she responds when Bayou makes contact, but Leanne’s mother quickly ends it by accusing Bayou of wolf-whistling a white woman. Luckily, just as a lynch mob of torch-wielding racists descend on Mom’s house, Bayou is able to get out of Dodge immediately, following Willie Earl and his nifty German manager to Chicago, where they land a prestigious residency during an upscale dance and dinner. club.
The Chicago scenes are the film’s most purely enjoyable moments, and provide a nice respite from the sugar-coated grit that surrounds them. Bayou turns out to have a lovely singing voice – a sweet Sam Cooke style that would certainly have stood out at the time – and becomes the hall’s biggest draw, but Willie Earl’s days are numbered as his addiction to heroine settles down. This is why Bayou then decides to return home for a concert at his mother’s juke joint as one of the many mysteries of a film which sees quite a few characters behave strangely, Leanne’s mother for example: if his daughter can actually “pass” as white or not. , why take the risk of marrying her to a man a few kilometers from a place where everyone knows her?
Tragedy strikes with grim inevitability, but it’s all over in minutes, bringing us back to the framing device and one final twist that audiences might need more time to digest than they actually have. Again, streaming is probably the best place for this; The blues of a jazzman might be best seen with the remote in hand, like a Sunday afternoon cable rerun of one of the swanky ’50s melodramas he puts on with big technical and musical credits but can’t quite breed intelligence and sophistication.