In the interest of full disclosure, it’s probably impossible for me to be impartial about Blue Like Jazz, which premieres tonight at the South By Southwest film festival. I’ve been a fan of director Steve Taylor for nearly 30 years and have had the privilege of working with him several times. I was such a fan I actually contributed a few bucks to the Kickstarter campaign that helped this movie get made. Objective? Maybe not. But I am a professional and I am right about this. Trust me.
Much like most of the Christian music of the 1980s, modern Christian films seem to be designed for Christians, by Christians and are at little risk of being critiqued by mainstream Hollywood at all. They satisfy one segment of the evangelical community’s need for Christian alternatives to "real" movies. In many cases, audiences are more than willing to overlook substandard acting and filmmaking because they are so excited to see and hear their own beliefs reverberating back at them from the big screen. These films satisfy a particular felt need within a large segment of the Christian community, and that community will reward them with busloads of ticket-buying fans who show up on opening night.
Blue Like Jazz is decidedly not one of those movies.
The long-awaited film adaptation of Donald Miller’s bestselling memoir has been brought to the screen by an artist who has been challenging the status quo of faith-based culture-making for over 25 years - as a solo artist, a band member, a record producer and a label founder. Taylor studied filmmaking in college and has been honing his chops behind a camera since creating his own music videos back in the '80s. His experience shows. His treatment of Miller’s brutally honest and hugely influential book is incredible. With the author’s full help and support (well-documented in the book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years), the story has been re-arranged as a sort of quixotically comedic look at Don’s attempt to eschew the Baptist faith he grew up with while attending a raucous, liberal college.
Experienced actors inhabit the roles with finesse, charm and wit. As Don, Marshall Allman (True Blood, Prison Break) navigates this story with complete believability. Claire Holt (H20, The Vampire Diaries) is pitch perfect as the socially conscious soul of the journey. Don’s spiritual and cultural foils-become-friends The Pope (Justin Welborn of Final Destination) and lesbian classmate Lauryn (Tania Raymonde of Lost) bring equal parts hilarity and discomfort as they humanize the “heathens” so often poorly rendered in overtly Christian films. The relatively small role of Don’s broken, lonely and loving mom is given depth and resonance by Nashville newcomer Jenny Littleton, while the part of the groan-worthy Youth Pastor (Jason Marsden) is a perfectly exaggerated cartoon of the sort of Christian goofball who makes so many of us embarrassed to admit that we know him (or have been him).
Make no mistake: Blue Like Jazz is no Christian film. It’s much more than that. The story follows Don as he reinvents himself upon arriving at the hedonistic Reed College and does his best to leave everything and everyone from his past behind. Taylor pulls no punches, including language and subject matter that is not considered appropriate for children under 13 by the MPAA. The content is never gratuitous and those Christians not sent running to the exits after the first 20 minutes will likely get caught up in the loves, fears, ambitions and secrets of these compelling characters the way they would in a real movie. It’s doubtful this film will bring Southern Baptists out by the van-load, to be sure. But anyone interested in an honest and genuinely funny look at the painful process of growing past religiosity and into the kind of faith that draws others in will find much to love.
What Do You Think?
- If you've read Blue Like Jazz, what do you expect from a movie version?
- What defines a "Christian" film for you?
- Do you think Blue Like Jazz will be able to find a sizable audience?