To Tyler Perry The jazzman’s blues it has everything, some things in such incredible amounts that it might be a little too much: forbidden love, drug abuse, hints of incest, a black woman who is pushed to pass as white by her scheming mother, complicated relationships between women who have every reason to resent each other and a mother figure who does laundry, helps babies come into the world, and runs a juke joint. You may need to turn the movie off every now and then just to catch your breath.
But Perry’s vision is welcome in a world where so few filmmakers will risk making an old-fashioned melodrama, even one that also explores, as this one does, some painful historical underpinnings. The jazzman’s blues spans 50 years: it begins in Hopewell, Georgia, in 1987 and follows the major events in its characters’ lives, focusing mainly on a shy young man named Bayou (played by the charming Joshua Boone), a country kid who around 1937 d. falls in love with local beauty Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), a young woman who is kept under strict supervision by her grandfather. Bayu’s home life is also troubled. His father, Buster (E. Roger Mitchell), a musician with overconfidence in his own talents, despises him, preferring his older son, Willie Earl (Austin Scott), who has dutifully learned to play the trumpet to please Buster’s. Bayou has a beautiful singing voice inherited from her mother, Hattie Mae (Amira Wan, in a taut, nuanced performance), a hard-working and sensible woman who does her best to protect Bayou from Buster and Willie Earl’s bullying, risking Buster’s rage and abuse .
Read more: The best movies of 2022 so far
Austin Scott and Amira Vann share music like son and mother
Bayu and Leanne find comfort in each other, meeting secretly at night. (She drops a paper airplane through his window as a signal, a romantic motif that finds a nice echo later in the film.) When she learns that Bayu can’t read, she teaches him; they make plans to run away together. But circumstances separate them. Flash forward to 1947: Bayou and Hattie Mae have left their country home and now live in the town of Hopewell, where Hattie Mae runs a wildly successful nightclub. (She sings there, beautifully, every night, in addition to her regular gigs as a midwife and laundress.) The chance meeting between Lian and Baio sparks momentary bliss, but also danger. Bayou left Hopewell for Chicago, where he achieved great success as a singer in an upscale club open only to white customers. On stage he is backed by an orchestra – one of whose members is his own brother, seething with resentment – and surrounded by wonderful backup dancers. But what haunts him is Lian’s love and he will do anything to get back to her.
This is barely a quarter of what happens in The jazzman’s blues. Perry hopes to make this film more than 25 years – a conversation with August Wilson was an early inspiration – and he didn’t hold back. It’s an ambitious, beautiful-looking picture that strives to capture the essence of life in the Deep South in the mid-20th century in a way that makes movie meaning without over-romanticizing it. In this world, white people hold all the cards and pose the greatest threat. But Perry also lets us enjoy both the opulence of a Chicago nightclub and the grittier, bluesier mood of Hattie Mae’s jukebox. In Chicago, Bayou serves up a buttery reading of “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”; back home in Hopewell, he takes the stage to join Hattie Mae in a spinning version of “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.” (The songs featured were arranged and produced by Terrence Blanchard.) Perry doesn’t represent one venue or one way of singing as better than another; both are outlets for the joy and freedom of self-expression.
Perry may not always have perfect control over the film’s tone: there is a moment of jagged, realistic horror that he first hints at effectively and then shows it outright, a choice that temporarily unsettles the film. Whether the image is essential or needlessly traumatic is up to the viewer, but Perry wants to make sure it grabs our attention, and he does. And there are a few choices that require an excessive suspension of disbelief: the older versions of certain characters don’t look like the earlier ones at all. However, Perry is generally attuned to what works on screen and what makes a good story. And sometimes it’s the old-school skills that need a revival the most.
More must-see stories from TIME