Director: Steve Taylor
Written by: Donald Miller, Ben Pearson, Steve Taylor
Starring: Marshall Allman, Jason Marsden, Tania Raymonde, Claire Holt, Eric Lange, Justin Welborn
Synopsis: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. . . . I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.”
Don, a nineteen-year-old sophomore at a Texas junior college, tries to escape his Bible Belt upbringing for life in the Pacific Northwest at the most godless campus in America.
Many Christian movies proselytize a cookie-cutter version of idealistic faith with a big moment revelation concluding with an inspirational resolution. “Blue Like Jazz” is an all-together different kind of Christian movie. The independent film is the adaptation of the best selling semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of well-known evangelical pastor Donald Miller. His memoir, which sold over 1.5 million copies, was an influential, if not a generational definitive, book for younger Christians struggling with defining their faith in a post-modern world.
Don (Marshall Allman, True Blood) a Baptist from the heart of Texas transfers from his community college to one of the country’s most progressive educational institutions Reed College. The culture shock is unfamiliar but enlightening to him. Over time, he observes these students worship their own religion of individualism and non-conformity. Along the way, Don encounters a cast of characters including an outspoken activist Penny (Claire Holt, The Vampire Diaries) as well as a man wearing a Pope outfit known on campus as The Pope (Justin Welborn, The Crazies) who is critical of Christianity. He even forms a close bond with a lesbian (Tania Raymonde, LOST) whom he meets in the men’s restroom while she’s using a urinal. With everyone now belonging to his inner circle, Don forms a new alliance of friends.
During his first semester, Don finds himself trapped in a crisis of faith. Does the core of his Christian beliefs, which he has become disillusioned due to his upbringing, have any relevance on his forward thinking campus? (“If you are going to have an existential crisis, Portland in the winter is hard to beat.”) It becomes clear that making the transition is necessary for his self-discovery and questioning, if not rejecting Christianity, is healthy alternative. A boundary-pushing prank involves him placing a condom on a church steeple and hanging a “Don’t let these people reproduce” banner. It is shocking to see this in a ‘Christian film,’ but it works as a form of engaging narrative and brutal realism. The strength of Blue Like Jazz requires us to journey with Don’s struggle instead of pretending everything will be okay. He is fed up with ‘the church’ even perplexed with finding relevance in his old identity. What will remain as he forms his new one? 99% of Christian films wouldn’t go into a skeptical territory. However a film like “Blue Like Jazz” belongs here even demanding we ask those harsh questions. As the church lives in a world, which asks those questions, this is very reassuring.
Adapting philosophical essays, which have a slightly poetic, introspective tone into a quirky narrative comedy was the daunting challenge of “Blue Like Jazz”. As someone who read the book, I found it to be a faithful translation. Filmmaker Steve Taylor pulls off the near impossible transforming one writing style into another. To understand the whole movie, one would need to read the book. Anyone who hasn’t read the book can follow along, but may not understand specific references (i.e. Don as an astronaut). One moving scene was Don apologizing to The Pope in a mock Confessional booth about the sins of Christianity. It is the emotional honest and tender moment, which gives the film even more a sense of realism and purpose.
A unique film such as ‘Blue Like Jazz’ found itself in an unorthodox situation. It might be referred to in the Entertainment Industry as the “Kickstart Miracle.” Fans of the book rallied to its support to save the production from shutting down. A campaign on the popular website Kickstarter, raised a record-setting $345,000 to fund the film doubling the original goal. Each individual who financially supported the project are featured in the film’s closing credits. The film premiered in the Narrative Spotlight Selection at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival. As a way to offer thanks to loyal followers, director Steve Taylor and author Don Miller went on a nationwide bus tour to host event screenings and discussions geared towards fans of the book and early supporters of the film.A movie such as “Blue Like Jazz” not only preaches to a segment of the choir, it extends to an audience beyond Christians. This is healthy alternative for the genre to explore and ‘Jazz’ succeeds venturing into the unexplored. After The Left Behind series and Fireproof, Christians have a film, which thinks outside of the church asking questions while seeking meaningful answers. Also, it’s not embarrassing to watch as a small budget ($1 million) goes a long way. In a refreshing sense, the audience isn’t preached a set of rules in how to live your life. A film like ‘Jazz’ has a lot of mainstream appeal to individuals who don’t have the desire to watch faith-based films. That’s the unexpected beauty of a quirky, poignant film like this one.
Rating: 7 out of 10