Skip to content

Review: Blue Like Jazz (The Movie)

I was a little afraid when I went to a screening of Blue Like Jazz, the new movie based on the Christian bestseller of the same name.  I’ve seen my share of Christian-themed movies before, and a lot of them feel like poorly-edited Lifetime movies starring folks from the local dinner theater.  Moreover, unlike real life, nobody curses – not even cops or drug dealers – sexuality doesn’t exist, and all the main characters get saved or rededicate their lives to Jesus in the end.

Blue Like Jazz breaks that mold in many ways.

The movie is very loosely based on author Don Miller’s search for God at Reed College, a private liberal arts school in Portland.  Young Don (Marshall Allman, True Blood) is the film’s protagonist, who provides just enough narration to give Miller’s mantra as the framework: your life is a story, and the arc of that story matters to God.

The conflict begins when Don discovers rank hypocrisy in his small-town, Southern Baptist church.  In protest, he peels out in the church parking lot, storming off to Portland and Reed College.  And thus begins a splashy, colorful, MTVed rewrite of the book, marked by a wise-cracking script that colors far outside the lines of your average Christian movie.

As Miller explained at the screening, if they were going to make a film that accurately portrayed Reed College, it was going to require them to earn their PG-13 rating (if anything, he said, they had to tone it down a notch from reality).  So be forewarned: it’s not a family-friendly film, and in fact, it has its fair share of crass humor, curse words, and substance abuse.

Unlike most Christian-produced films, Blue Like Jazz includes a number of non-Christian characters who are likeable as they are; and the film lets them stay that way.  Even more remarkable is the fact that the film includes a character, Penny (Claire Holt, Vampire Diaries), who appears to be just another social justice-driven do-gooder until her deeds – and her reluctant revelation – make it apparent that she’s a committed Christian.

Claire Holt as Penny

More than anything, Penny’s faith is what distinguishes Blue Like Jazz from other films with Christian characters.  She shows no shame in being a Christian, yet she’s comfortable keeping it to herself, letting the other characters (and the audience) get to know her and like her before explaining what makes her quirky, self-sacrificial life appealing.

As Don’s character says, in reference to Penny, “Sometimes you gotta watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.”  I only wish we had gotten more opportunities to watch Penny love.

Instead, too much screen time was wasted on a perpetual sideshow of crunchy, left coast students gone wild, doing all manner of whimsical things like dressing up as robots and invading a bookstore (giggle, giggle), replacing the American flag with the head of a bunny rabbit costume (no they didn’t!), and an underwear-clad, three-man marching band stomping through the crowd on the first day of school (lol!), to name a few.  Although this will play well with Christian teens who sneak in to see the movie, these sophomoric scenes leave the viewer feeling like they’ve just watched stolen footage from TV’s Portland-based satire Portlandia.

Ironically, Blue Like Jazz is most like Christian films in the way that it handles Don’s character.  The film inverts the usual, superfast conversion-to-Jesus formula by almost instantly converting Don from a goody-two-shoes, teetotaler who serves Kool-Aid at church to a beer-guzzling, rebellious freshman who tries to fit in by mocking Christianity and religious beliefs in general.

Don’s transformation to godlessness is so abrupt that it seems unbelievable, especially because there’s no evidence of the tension, regret, or guilt you would expect from a guy who is breaking the rules he’s strictly lived by his entire life.  Then, just as dramatically, in the last minutes of the film, Don makes another turnaround with almost no explanation – though I have to say that the turnaround is moving, thanks in large part to actor Justin Welborn (The Crazies).  Even so, the film ultimately proves that we still haven’t figured out how to visibly portray changes in the Christian life that, for the most part, start in our heads and hearts.

Anyone who has read Miller’s work won’t be surprised to find that the film pulls no punches in its handling of the evangelical Christian subculture which, in and of itself, isn’t the problem.  The problem is that the portrayal of evangelical Christianity is excessively simplistic and even bizarre.  Indeed (quite self-righteously), the only thing complex about evangelical Christianity in the film is Don Miller’s character.  Beyond that, all we get is an embarrassing caricature of a po-dunk, evangelical Texas church that’s probably only believable as an archtype to the folks who attend Reed College.  Sure, there’s Penny and her warm, liturgical church (which we learn very little about), but the distinct impression they ultimately give is, “Don’t worry, we’re not like those people.

The film far surpasses the quality of most other Christian-themed movies I have seen – the script, the acting, the cinematography – and it deserves credit for that. After watching most Christian movies, the best I can say is, “Well, the church play sure has come a long way.” Not so with Blue Like Jazz; it is a real movie, one that – while imperfect – is thoughtful, engaging, and in some ways, a testament to the transforming power of Christ.

One of the main questions viewers at the screening had was how the film might impact non-Christians. Although unbelievers may find it to be a compelling depiction of faith, it will probably be more likely to resonate with disaffected young Christians who have been burned by the church. The majority of the viewers – young, white, church-going evangelicals in the 18 to 35-year-old demographic – will be challenged by the film, but realize that showing it to non-believers probably won’t be nearly as effective as following in Penny’s footsteps and living out their faith wherever God has placed them.

17 Comments
  1. What a well considered and well written post. Having not seen the movie, I can't know if I agree with your observations, but based on my understanding of Donald Miller (I read BLJ and follow his blog) I have the feeling you may have been overly kind…probably because you're a genuinely nice guy :)As much as I enjoy Miller as a person and a writer, I'm concerned that he seems to espouse a "do-Christianity-your-way" to disaffected hipsters to the point that he and they may be leaning too far away from the truth. That is, his description of the Gospel in BLJ was vague at best. So I'm fully expecting the movie to be vague as well. Too bad because I REALLY want to like this movie – it's storyline is so bursting with potential!

    Like

    March 9, 2012
  2. Great review! Thanks Joshua. Ditto Ditto. specially that cheezy hypocritical podunk evangelical churches are big fat targets! Ned Flanders loves Jesus so I should love Ned!! Random take:I thought the film funny and entertaining. Followed Steve Taylor's career a bit. Loved his work as a punk/new wave CCM artist and force behind Newsboys. He seems to be a prince of a guy. Friends tell me he attends one of our sister Anglican churches in Nashville. Totally agree with CJB's critique above. Don Miller seems to advocate "do-Christianity-your-way." The biggest disappointment for me was hearing Don state "in Portland we don't do church" therefore he hasn't joined a church in five years. Yer on the fightin' side of Jesus when you dis his wife. Also, Don was asked what the takeaway should be and he didn't really answer that coherently. At least I can't remember what he said. Some jazz resolves, some doesn't?!!???

    Like

    March 9, 2012
  3. Not in the slightest bit surprising. The movie world has hated God for a long time. It sounds like this film is similar to Borat in its liberal elitist hatred of God.

    Like

    March 9, 2012
  4. That would not at all be a fair reflection of the movie. There's no hating of anyone in the film, especially not God. There is, however, a fair share of uncharitability toward evangelicals.

    Like

    March 9, 2012
  5. Well thought and written review. How many start would you give it, Josh?

    Like

    March 9, 2012
  6. I means to write, How many "stars" would you give it?

    Like

    March 9, 2012
  7. Aw Bill, I was trying to avoid that question. But since you asked, truthfully and objectively – two and a quarter.

    Like

    March 9, 2012
  8. I got you. See above.

    Like

    March 9, 2012
  9. Josh, thanks for writing this. I have my tix to the screening here in a couple of weeks. Looking forward to it. You mentioned wanting to know more about Penny. The real Penny is married with kids, and writes a lot at http://www.burnsidewriters.com

    Like

    March 9, 2012
  10. Hmmmm…After watching Make A Joyful Noise I would assume that lots of "Christian" movies are in essence utterly pointless. But now I want to check it out.

    Like

    March 10, 2012
  11. I don't doubt this will be better than a low-budget musical starring Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah.

    Like

    March 11, 2012
  12. The great Steve Taylor directed this film, and I don't think it is the Hollywood machine cranking it out. But I'm sure there's a lot of that "emergent" angst. I'm nervous about seeing it, but, at least it's just a movie.

    Like

    March 12, 2012
  13. I haven't read the book, but have heard enough to rather spend my reading time elsewhere. The preview for the movie does look entertaining, so I'm sure I'll see it at some point. Hopefully it will be a good conversation starter!

    Like

    March 12, 2012
  14. I've seen the film (about a year ago) and will be seeing another early screening of it in about a week. I've also had the opportunity to talk to Steve Taylor one-on-one about the film. I'm also reformed, evangelical, and deeply grounded in the gospel.I don't say this to boast, only to let you know where I'm coming from:This film is not an "emergent angst" film. While I agree completely with the review, I also understand why Steve, Donald, and Ben chose to portray things the way they did. They aren't angry at Christianity, or evangelicalism and while they show a ridiculous version of evangelicalism, they also show the folly of secularism and how, while enticing, it's ultimately hollow. I think you will enjoy the movie as a film, find it a great step in the right direction in Christian film making, but still feel like the Gospel and Donald's conversion are underplayed.

    Like

    March 12, 2012
  15. Thanks for the great review. It was very detailed and brought up some great thoughts regarding the film. I was able to see a screening of the movie a few weekends ago and wrote a short review on it here: http://austinmccann.com/2012/03/10/blue-like-jazz-the-movie/ I really like what you said near the end about the movie resonating with Christians who have been burned by the church more than the movie speaking to non-Christians. I was thinking along those same lines when I was watching the film. The Gospel seems to be left out in this film making it more geared towards Christians than non-Christians. Great review and thanks for posting!

    Like

    March 12, 2012
  16. Thanks for the review. I am really looking forward to the movie

    Like

    March 16, 2012
  17. I am a big Miller fan and attended a screening. I really, really wanted to love this movie! I read "A Million Miles", so I went into the movie familiar with the process of turning BLJ into a film. I totally agree with your review. Impressed by acting and cinematography, but really unimpressed by how it all played out. The true parts really seemed genuine and profound, the made up stuff seemed totally contrived and quite formulaic, which is the exact opposite of Miller's writings. The manner in which he chose to portray the hypocrisy in Xianity really made it a bit ridiculous . . . was it supposed to be believable or was that the comedy part of the movie? Yes there were funny moments, like the cross pinata, but the fictionalized characters of Don's father and mother and their situations really were contrived and lacked credibility. Don's account of Penny's conversion in the book was so powerful, I would have loved to have seen that woven into the plot. Instead, Penny comes off as a goody 2-shoes and fails to connect with the audience. Just wonder what the outcome would have been if Steve and Don didn't feel the need to fictionalize so much of the movie.In the Q & A after the movie, Don mentioned the film reviewed well in front of a largely secular audience. Would be curious to hear from that demographic.Overall, I recommend BLJ fans see the movie, despite its shortcomings.

    Like

    March 18, 2012

Comments are closed.