The mix of musical genres in the title of this gala presentation at the Toronto Film Festival reflects the wildly uneven tone of this rare drama from Tyler Perry Studios, a lush romantic musical that tells the story of a southern lynching with echoes of the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi. 1955. The inevitable abandonment of Netflix is probably the best strategy for this; Perry may have his fans, but it’s hard to imagine a cross audience for Jazzman blues.
Set in Hopewell, Georgia, 1987, an elderly black lady listens to a television interview with a local politician who discourages competition from an African-American candidate by referring to the now-familiar Republican Party talking about reverse racism. “I’ve had enough of you, mister white man,” she tells the screen and heads to his office. Once there, she refuses to leave, eventually bursting into his office with statements about a murder that happened in 1947 and a stack of loosely bound letters that serve as evidence. The mayor sits down to read the first – supposedly they should all be in order – and we’re transported back to 1937, where a woman sings the Memphis Minnie “If You See My Cock” in an impromptu outdoor blues dance.
The woman is a mother (Ameera Vann) and her whole family is here: her husband Buster (E. Roger Mitchell) with a guitar 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 Bayu is his mother’s son, who got his name from the depths of penetrating eyes. After embarrassing himself with the horrific turning on of the pipe, Bayou meets Lynn (Solea Pfeiffer), a pretty girl nicknamed Bucket after her mother carelessly left her in the care of her evil grandfather. The two meet every night in the woods, but when Lynn’s socially aspiring mother finds out that her daughter is crazy about a poor black boy, she takes Lynn to the big city.
Why she does this becomes clear when Lynn returns later; Bayou is running errands for her mother, a local washerwoman, when she spots Lynn at the sheriff’s house with her husband, the sheriff’s brother. Soon to be mayor, the man has no idea that his new wife is secretly of color, and despite all the wealth she’s married to, Lynn is quickly horrified by the family’s casual bigotry. Naturally, she responds when Bayou makes contact, but Lynn’s mother quickly pays the price by blaming Bayou for whistling a white woman. Luckily, once the torch-wielding racist lynch mob descends on Mom’s house, Bayu is able to get out of Dodge immediately, following Willie Earle and his owl-like German manager to Chicago, where they get a prestigious residency at a high-class dance and dinner party. club.
The Chicago scenes are the film’s most satisfying moments, offering a welcome respite from the granulated sugar that surrounds them. It turns out Bayou has a great singing voice – the smooth Sam Cooke style that would certainly stand out in that era – and becomes the establishment’s biggest attraction, but Willie Earle’s days are numbered as his heroin addiction takes over. Which is why Bayu then decides to return home for a concert at her mother’s music club, which is one of the many mysteries in the film, in which quite a few characters act strangely, such as Lynn’s mother: can her daughter really “pass” for white or not ? why take the risk of marrying her off to a man just a few miles away from where everyone knows her?
The tragedy strikes with its grim inevitability, but it ends in a matter of minutes, bringing us back to the framing device and one last wacky twist that may take viewers longer to digest than they actually get. Again, streaming is probably the best place to do this; Jazzman blues it might be better to watch with remote in hand, like a Sunday afternoon cable rerun of one of the cool melodramas of the 50s, which he delivers with great technical and musical merit, but whose intelligence and sophistication he cannot fully replicate.