“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. Within the meantime, he broke through with a slew of Madea comedies, and whetted the talents required to deliver the faceted fantastic thing about Bayou — his richest male character up to now — with dramas like 2010’s “For Coloured Girls.”
It helps, too, that he has found an ideal portrayer in Joshua Boone (“Premature”). Bayou, who’s embodied with a luminous sincerity by Boone, offers a touching tackle the sort of compassionate man a so-called mama’s boy might turn into.
The movie begins in 1987. An elderly version of Hattie Mae Boyd (Daphne Maxwell Reid) paces round 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 brief order, she arrives on the candidate’s office with a stack of affection letters — proof, she says, of her son’s killing in 1947. Because 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 one another 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 need collapsed under the load of its twists or drowned within the sentimentality of Aaron Zigman’s rating. 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’s here that the composer Terence Blanchard, who wrote songs for the film, and the choreographer Debbie Allen create a few of its most exuberant musical numbers.)
“A Jazzman’s Blues” is filled with outsize emotions, but in addition grand themes. The connection of antisemitism to white supremacy gets a major nod. And while addiction, domestic abuse and rape have up to now been Perry staples — and appear here as well — they’re now within the service of a more expansive, chastising saga.
A Jazzman’s Blues
Rated R for scenes of substance abuse, violence, rape, transient lovemaking and cruel language. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. Watch on Netflix.