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.