A number of years ago, I had a few friends extol the virtues of Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. Once I actually found time to start reading, it was difficult to put down. The characters were vivid, fresh, and seemed more human than in most Christian books I’d read. There were a lot of messy situations and a lot of messy people and a college campus that seemed to promote messiness. I liked it a lot. Besides, it provided a raging stream of quotable dialogue guaranteed to elicit likes on Facebook.
I shared my enjoyment of the book with a number of folks, hoping (as I always do) that they would reciprocate my feelings about it. Alas, they didn’t. It was too out of the ordinary, too loose, too philosophical, too secular. My disappointment was palpable.
When I learned that Steve Taylor was going to direct a movie version of the book, I was hopeful but quite concerned. Hopeful because films such as Fireproof, Courageous, Soul Surfer, and October Baby have seen modest success in the general box office recently. Concerned because faith-based films of this nature have often involved poor production values, actors staring into the camera, force-fed versions of the Gospel for the whole family, unrealistic stories, and a stubborn refusal to try anything new.
But don’t necessarily take my word for it—the executive producer of the sitcom Home Improvement, David McFadzean, has gone so far as to compare faith-based flicks to porn—saying they‘re “poorly lit, poorly acted and [one always knows] how they’re going to end.”
If that last statement caused you to say “Whoa!,” then you understand the problem. If not, then you’re probably not going to want to see Steve Taylor’s on-screen adaptation of Blue Like Jazz. It’s not what you might expect.
And that isn’t a good thing.
It’s a great thing.
The story begins in Texas, as Don (Marshall Allman, from True Blood) prepares to head off to a Christian college and a new life. But before he can get there, his church wants to send him off in a memorable way—having him wear a goofy-looking Armor of God outfit straight out of the pages of Oriental Trading. What follows is the most awkward children’s church message I’ve ever seen. Don thinks so, too—he leaves the sanctuary and takes to heart the words of his estranged father, who has pulled strings to get him into Reed College in Portland, Oregon, an institution known as a bastion of independence and godlessness (but just as selective as Harvard in real-life).
Don’s wake-up call begins the moment he steps into the dorm bathroom. Free thinking, activism, and the occasional class fill the time. When Don confesses that he’s a Christian to lesbian Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), she immediately tells him to go back to the closet with that thinking. And sure enough, Don does. He swings like a pendulum in the opposite direction, rebelling against all he ever knew. Of course, matters at home (an affair between his mom and the children’s program director at church) just add gallons of gasoline to the rebellion.
His “lifeline,” if you want to call her that, is Penny (Claire Holt), a fellow student who’s big into protesting large corporations and defacing billboards in the name of morality. There seems to be some chemistry, but Penny rebuffs Don at seemingly every turn. A trip she takes during her break to India changes her, but not before Don takes the protesting thing too far—acting as an accomplice with The Pope (a classmate who dresses like the Pontiff, burns books, and questions everything) to provide a wake-up call to her church—and the entire audience.
Individualism eventually takes its toll on people, giving rise to the Renn Fayre, a celebration of Bacchanalian proportions. It’s at this point that the flame of truth begins to flicker, smolder, and reignite in Don—and perhaps in others.
Steve Taylor does a very good job with cinematography in Blue Like Jazz, leaving the camera awash in a light blue haze that complements the film and doesn’t feel jarring. The soundtrack, complete with riffs from jazz artist John Coltrane, adds to the overall tone of uncertainty and searching from Don. Pacing is fairly good, although the film drags somewhat in the middle portions.
As for acting, I didn’t see any staring into the cameras by any of the actors. In fact, the acting is quite believable. Allman treats Don as a person dealing with a plethora of emotions—confusion, hope, rage, triumph, and fear—and pulls it off admirably. But the person who steals the film is The Pope, played by Justin Welborn. Maybe it was the miter he was wearing. Maybe it was the books he burned in his rideable shopping cart. Maybe it was the confessional booth. Whatever it was, he plays the role with zest and enough carelessness to create a calloused person who’s hiding something inside.
The breath of fresh air from a typical “Christian film” involves the situations the characters find themselves in. Individualism means exploration, and there’s drinking—lots of it—to prove the point. Bad language exists, but not in terribly large doses (I counted eight words). But the biggest plus for me was the ending. A number of prominent critics have bashed Blue Like Jazz for not having a tidy conclusion with all the plot points wrapped up. But life doesn’t work like that. All problems are not solved in a person’s life when their head hits the pillow at night. And although the ending is a satisfying one, there are still issues that Don and the other characters will have to deal with. This pleases me greatly.
Although Blue Like Jazz has its weak areas, it’s definitely a film people—churched and otherwise—need to see with an open mind and a willing heart. Maybe it can be the catalyst that proves David McFazdean’s words to be incorrect.
I sure hope so.