There’s no denying that Tyler Perry is an auteur capable of fascinating works, but A Jazzman’s Blues is further proof that the director is unsure of where his own strengths lie.
In his review of Fritz Lang’s twisty, geometric, and viciously nihilistic Beyond A Reasonable Doubt for Cahiers du cinema, Jacques Rivette attempted to articulate the cinematic personality of the German filmmaker, and characterized Lang as “the cinéaste of the concept.” As Rivette notes in his review, Lang’s concerns within the film on both a narrative and instinctual level deal only with the necessary; there’s “no concession […] made here to the everyday, to detail: no remarks about the weather, the cut of a dress, the graciousness of a gesture; if one does become aware of a brand of make-up, it is for purposes of plot.” He even notes that the characters themselves function less as individuals and more as vessels to allow such themes to play out; everything is in service of the ideas Lang is invested, or interested, in exploring. In that sense, this cinema of concept that Rivette presents here is one inherently interested in only its own means of presentation: one beholden to its own internal logic, not one concerned with anything representing a simulacrum of reality. For Lang, he wouldn’t consider this a means to an end, but the end in and of itself. A conceptual cinema, then, is beholden more to its own rationale for existence than just about anything else.
Tyler Perry, an American cinéaste of a far different temperament (though he’s equally economical with his productions like Lang was with his American pictures), operates in more or less the same vein. He doesn’t afford his characters any interiority — if anything, they’re blurting out their personality traits and attributes at the drop of a hat — and everything they set out to do, will say, and will be motivated to accomplish will revolve around whatever concept tickles Perry’s fancy at the given moment. That is, the “dramatic” Perry pictures; you see, Perry, originally a playwright who operated in the grand tradition of Shakespeare, only ever writes two different types of scripts: comedies and dramas. The farces will usually have him dress up as Mabel “Madea” Earlene Simmons — the iconic, if also extremely demeaning and borderline misogynoir, personality that helped launch Perry’s career — and are, generally speaking, retrograde, tawdry affairs that, at least in this critic’s eyes, aren’t terribly humorous or all that heart-warming (there was one that was released earlier this year if you’re really itching to try one out).
The dramas, however — or, to be more accurate, the melodramas, because that’s what they all essentially are — can occasionally transcend Perry’s rather limited grasp on cinematic language and amateurish directorial tendencies. Titles like A Fall From Grace aren’t exactly good in a traditional sense, but their dizzyingly stacked-deck plot mechanics and insane histrionics from local Georgian sub-talent (you can easily see why none of these people are living in L.A.) can border on hysterically hyper-real camp. There are also the rushed shooting schedules — Perry famously shoots all his movies conveyor-belt style, where he stacks various sets right next to each other — and extremely low budgets, which only heighten the odd intensity of Perry’s termite art, at least as he’s entered into the streaming era.
This makes his latest feature, A Jazzman’s Blues, a rather bizarre continuation of Perry’s ongoing partnership with Netlfix, as never before has there been such a strange tension between material and form with a Perry picture. On one hand, the film is clearly attempting to be a real prestige product, one with an unnaturally handsome look and feel considering the story that’s being told; some of the outdoor photography is so light-drenched that it would feel right at home in a Nathanial Dorsky short. On the other, the screenplay (which was written in 1995, and has probably not been revised since) is classic Perry at heart, albeit spread extra thin and lacking his usual bite. While some of the dramatic conventions are clearly bending to the mode of presentation — this is certainly his most ambitious and “respectable” project yet — the theatrical side of Perry can still shine through.
The setup has his fingerprints all over it: told with what seems like a completely unnecessary epistolary framing device — until it becomes clear it’s just in service of a particularly lame twist ending you can see coming from a mile off if you’re at all familiar with this sort of story — the film follows the soon-to-be tragic tale of Bayou (wide-eyed Joshua Boone), a poor laborer who falls in love with the light-skinned Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer). Due to Leanne’s ambiguous racial presentation, she’s able to marry into a rich, white, deeply racist family (is there ever any other type in a Perry script?) which sets off a chain of events that are completely contrived — perhaps a better comparison in terms of dramatists would be Asghar Farhadi, as both rely on their characters acting as irrationally as possible in order to keep things moving along — somewhat predictable, and, kinda boring, which is the last thing any Perry movie should be. Will every undeveloped side character (and there’s a litany of them here, including an alcoholic father and junkie older brother; the mother, per usual, is always a Christ-like figure) bend over backward to make sure Bayou and Leanne see each other, even when they know it will result in disaster? I’ll answer your question by raising another: What do you honestly think?
Occasionally, there’s a line-reading so tonally off-balanced that it reminds you how fun Perry’s films can be; hell, there’s one here where a Jewish man tries to comfort Bayou, which responds to with something so unintentionally hilarious that it almost reminds you of what Perry can be when he’s not forced to compromise. Which he isn’t really doing, as he’s signed off on all of these creative decisions, but there’s something so internally off about nearly everything here that it implies passivity; there’s very little that suggests this was a passion project, which can realistically be the sole reason why this screenplay wasn’t left to further collect dust. Once again, everything in Perry’s constructed universe is in service of a grand, yet patently ridiculous concept — but the way Perry’s gone about it with A Jazzman’s Blues indicates that he’s an auteur who’s not even conscious enough to recognize where his strengths lie.
You can currently stream Tyler Perry’s A Jazzman’s Blues on Netflix.