Blue Like Jazz (2012)
Blue Like Jazz is all the latest rage around the world of art-loving Christians, not necessarily for its cinematic achievement or artistic prowess, but rather for the anomaly that it is when it comes to “Christian” art. Sprouting up here and there are thoughts, opinions, and angles on the film directed by Steve Taylor, based on the popular memoir by Donald Miller. Each discusses whether this film does the book justice, what it means for both “Christian” moviemaking and artmaking, and whether or not a secular audience can not only enjoy the film, but whether it will usher them into the spiritual realm like it is supposed to(?).
Sure there are many fimmakers out there who are Christians and are making movies, so this is not a completely new thing. In the last few years I have seen several films that explicitly touch on Christian subjects. Directors like Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) or Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, The New World) have made movies deeply influenced by religious beliefs, while movies like Of Gods and Men, Higher Ground, and Secret Sunshine all deal with living the Christian life (and yet are highly unseen by a Christian audience, but they sure do seem to find a lot of Christian metaphors in Braveheart or Gladiator). I think Blue Like Jazz differs from those films because they are either released from mainstream marketing or from independent distributors that critics ogle over, while Blue Like Jazz mostly finds itself being advertised within the “Christian” market (most notably for me: Relevant Magazine and during a Gungor concert). In this sense they have a lot more to do with past “Christian” films such as Fireproof or Facing the Giants.
In this regard is also where Blue Like Jazz differs and thus finds itself lost between two different markets (perhaps as a bridge…). Blue Like Jazz features language (7 s-words as PluggedIn will tell you), sensuality, and other things that aren’t as church-appropriate. It pushes the limit on what is allowed to be discussed at church, while having a level of quality and openness to allow critics and secular moviegoers to enjoy it. It stands in the middle between two very different worlds and invites both sides to come and meet, without so ever choosing a side.
It is for this reason that this an important film; the release of the film itself will do more for Christians and movies than anything actually in the movie could do. Having to do stand in the middle, may in fact prevent the film from reaching a level of greatness.
Blue Like Jazz follows Don Miller, a young Christian in Texas living a sheltered life within his Baptist church. When something shatters Don’s life and view of the church, he leaves town, headed West to liberal, wild, “free” Reed College in Portland, Or. There he learns to shut his mouth about any Christian upbringing and learns the Reed mantra of living “free” through wild parties, civil disobedience, and lectures based on radical ideologies.
The film really does this all very well. Marshall Allman plays Don very well and the supporting cast does a great job playing the eclectic characters he meets. Production-wise, the film is no Avatar, but for something that was saved by a Kickstarter campaign, there is certainly nothing to complain about. The thing that the film does the best is the humor, portraying some hilarious (and horrifying) images as well as great dialogue that satirizes the conservative church. One reason I loved Donald Miller’s work is for the humor that he brings to it, and the film certainly brings that part out.
The real problem with the film lies in the lack of struggle Don shows during his time at Reed. As Don leaves his life behind, he instantly rejects everything about his old life. The notion that Don would completely and instantly reject his sub-culture is believable and would have been interesting had there been more struggle and questioning shown. Instead, Don mocks religion and spends his time with beer filled, bike-fixing sessions. His anger at the church turns more into shame, rather than angry rants at God, and as a viewer, it wasn’t engaging.
The film’s conclusion even points to the fact that it isn’t about doubting, but about being ashamed, as Don gives a speech about “being ashamed of Jesus”, whilst asking for forgiveness of the church. It is here that being a bridge brings down the quality of the movie. By trying to teach young Christians you don’t have to be ashamed at the same time as asking forgiveness for all the sins of the church, it seems to want to throw a bone to both sides of the bridge, in a way that is less than subtle. The meditative approach of Miller’s work seems to get lost in the climax and resolution of the story arc, with the loose ends getting tied up a little too quickly, nicely, and conveniently.
It is a film worth checking out if you are interested in religion, are a Christian, or have read the book. If you are not, I still recommend it, because really there’s not many good films in theaters right now anyways. Blue Like Jazz will be remembered many years down the road, more for the impact that it will have, than for the content within the film. I look forward to what director Steve Taylor will do down the road and am always on the lookout for new things written by Donald Miller.