“A Jazzman’s Blues,” Tyler Perry’s melodrama about ill-fated teenagers who fall in love in rural Georgia, marks the writer-director-studio head’s return to his first screenplay, which he wrote in 1995. In the meantime, he broke through with a slew of Madea comedies, and whetted the skills required to deliver the faceted beauty of Bayou — his richest male character to date — with dramas like 2010’s “For Colored Girls.”
It helps, too, that he has found a perfect portrayer in Joshua Boone (“Premature”). Bayou, who is embodied with a luminous sincerity by Boone, offers a touching take on the kind of compassionate man a so-called mama’s boy might become.
The movie begins in 1987. An elderly version of Hattie Mae Boyd (Daphne Maxwell Reid) paces around her home, listening to a white political candidate (Brent Antonello) being interviewed on television. He blathers about his family’s civic legacy. When he begins nattering on about not being racist, she shuts off the TV. Then, in short order, she arrives at the candidate’s office with a stack of love letters — proof, she says, of her son’s killing in 1947. As the man begins reading the letters, the movie shifts to the past, where it stays for much of the star-crossed, racism-infused romance.
Amirah Vann (in a bulwark turn) portrays the younger version of Hattie Mae, the loving mama of Bayou and his brother, Willie Earl (Austin Scott). Solea Pfeiffer, in a promising onscreen debut, is Leanne, the intended recipient of Bayou’s missives.
From the get-go, Bayou and Leanne recognize in each other something wounded, yet also sheltering. But their clandestine affection is upended when Leanne’s mother, Ethel (Lana Young), bent on passing for white, wrenches her daughter away. The romance is briefly rekindled when a war injury sends Bayou home to his mother’s juke joint outside Hopewell, Ga., and Leanne arrives, newly wed to a scion of the town’s reigning family.
With this turn, the movie might have collapsed under the weight of its twists or drowned in the sentimentality of Aaron Zigman’s score. A volatile scene between Leanne and her childhood- friend-turned housekeeper, Citsy (played with fierce sensitivity by Milauna Jemai Jackson), helps shore it up.
When Bayou leaves, this time to avoid a lynching, he heads with Willie Earl and his brother’s music manager, Ira (Ryan Eggold), to Chicago. There, Ira lands a nightclub gig for Bayou, a honey-voiced singer, and his trumpet-playing, heroin-shooting brother. (It is here that the composer Terence Blanchard, who wrote songs for the film, and the choreographer Debbie Allen create some of its most exuberant musical numbers.)
“A Jazzman’s Blues” is packed with outsize emotions, but also grand themes. The relationship of antisemitism to white supremacy gets a significant nod. And while addiction, domestic abuse, and rape have in the past been Perry staples — and appear here as well — they’re now in the service of a more expansive, chastising saga.
A Jazzman’s Blues
Rated R for scenes of substance abuse, violence, rape, brief lovemaking and cruel language. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. Watch on Netflix.