Blue Like Jazz, not like Courageous

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?

 

Comments (13)

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Just as a point of clarification; I see nothing wrong at all with films being made "by Christians and for Christians." Same obviously goes for music. Every tribe has every right to express themselves and their values through the arts. I simply want to differentiate the type of filmmaking being accomplished by Taylor and Miller from the more evangelistically minded work of the Sherwood folks (Courageous, Fireproof etc.) Courageous fans might be deeply offended and confused by Blue Like Jazz, just as Blue Like Jazz fans might be put off by Courageous.

After the premiere last night Taylor, Miller and lead actor Marshall Allman came out to answer questions. The very first question came from a young woman: "What is the difference between the religiousness the main character has at the beginning of the movie from the religiousness he has at the end?" Miller explained the difference between the faith he inherited culturally as a kid and the faith he developed and owned after his time at Reed College. That young woman either came at the film from a very religious perspective - not yet "getting" the difference between an owned, personal faith - or (more likely at SXSW) came at it with no concept of faith at all. Either way, it was very encouraging to have that question come up first as I believe it is the question at the core of the film.

One of the SXSW staff told us that there were hundreds of films submitted for this festival and that the fact that Blue Like Jazz was chosen as an "Official Selection" already spoke of their admiration of the film. He then said that they had seen thousands of college films, but rarely one with this much heart.
JJT, I was already psyched to see this, but now I really want to see this. Steve Taylor. Don Miller. John J. Thompson. This review is a magnet for awesome people whose works I admire! :) Great to see many names converging on one page. Thanks for the review, good sir! :)
I love the reveiew. I am so anxious to see Blue Like Jazz. I hope that it is able to effect those of us who see it as well as bring a new level of creativity to religious film-making.
I saw the movie last night. Loved the film, just as I loved the book. I agree with your review and your review's title. I disagree with something you said in the clarifying comment, though. In many ways I believe that this film is more evangelistically minded than the Sherwood folks, simply because it is a film that is not made by Christians for Christians. It's a film that is made to be show the reality of the struggles and failures and redemption of a Christian. I am not knocking the Sherwood movies, they have great messages for Christians. But I am not going to invite my non-Christian friends to watch them. Sorry, but my non-Christian friends just wouldn't like them. They would say that they are hokey. If a movie isn't being seen by non-Christians, it isn't reaching the non-Christians. Then can it truly be evangelistic? Blue Like Jazz has the potential to be a catalyst for so many conversations with non-Christians about Christianity. Authentic Christianity. Blue Like Jazz has the potential to ignite conversations among Christians about what it means to be a Christian and how we should interact with non-Christians. This movie has the potential to be a catalyst to change the conversation in our culture. I really hope those who support the Sherwood films can support this film to because this film is evangelism on the front lines to those who need to hear it.
Bickle Fam, you made an interesting point. I hadn't thought of that before, but that is totally one of the reasons I am really excited about seeing this movie next month!
As a fan of Courageous and Fireproof and Facing the Giants, I was also looking forward to seeing Blue like Jazz and was not expecting it to be anything like the above mentioned movies, but I haven't read an article, yet, that has not drawn comparisons while making the Sherwood films and fans seem shallow and brainless. My favorite was the article comparing the Sherwood films with porn.

I can assure you, as a lover of Jesus Christ and His Gospel, I did not enjoy the Sherwood movies because I am a mindless zombie who enjoys sitting in a theater with a bag of popcorn having "my views reverberated back to me."

I will not argue that the Sherwood movies weren't "hokey," but I will argue that the Gospel is just that..."hokey." Paul said the Gospel will be foolishness to the world, and those who believe the Gospel, fools. There isn't a passage in the Bible where followers of Jesus are told to run from that. On the contrary, if we are to "pick up our cross" we will have to embrace it. Jesus died in shame and rejection. Following Him means embracing the same. And, yes, the further you get from a black and white presentation of the Gospel, the less "hokey" things will be.

This doesn't mean I have a problem with books and movies like Blue like Jazz. I think there is room for both types of expression and that both can be doors for meaningful conversations between Christians and non-Christians alike.

By the way, I have had great conversations with friends who do not claim to be Christians because of Courageous and Fireproof and have seen Christians take their own faith more seriously because of those movies as well. Maybe the problem isn't with the "hokiness" of those movies but our own fear of being identified with the "hokiness" of Jesus.

I hope Blue like Jazz does well and that many Christians and Sherwood film fans go see it (I'm planning to), but mocking the Sherwood films and fans, whether openly or subtly, as in "I doubt this movie will bring Southern Baptists out by the van-load," isn't helping.
@marcifranseen: well said!

Could we please recognize that Sherwood Pictures has a specific Christian ministry to Christians? just like Steve Taylor has a Christian ministry to non-Christians?

The church has a two-fold task: to tell sinners they need to go to Christ for salvation, and to tell Christians they need to go to Christ for spiritual strength. Sherwood does the latter - very well. They know who God is and how he works, better than anyone else I've seen in the Christian film industry! [Another good example is Faith Like Potatoes.] With Sherwood just like with Tim Tebow, it's about excellence in every area of life (church, home, marketplace) and every fiber of one's tripartite being. Sherwood's task right now is building up the church to have faith in God and to demonstrate excellence through spiritual power.

Does 'Blue Like Jazz' do this? Is that its purpose? No. Yet I don't know what the film's purpose is! I still believe Steve Taylor need to learn that the lion roars, not whispers, to sinners and Christians like - just like genius roars as famed baker Ron Ben-Israel loves to say on his Food Network show "Sweet Genius." I'm not seeing genius or roaring in this film. "Blue Like Jazz" seems too wimpy in its presentation of the gospel to sinners, if that is its purpose. We see reality, how things are. We don't see how things should be. This film has no vision.
I bought the years ago when it came out after a friend recommended it to me. I loved it...loved it so much I re-read it. I've returned to the book several times over the years, also having read everything else Don Miller has written. I have enjoyed every single word in each and every book. With that having been said, I was very disappointed with the movie. Very.
I understand that Don, Steve & Ben felt like the book couldn't go to the screen exactly as written...I understand how adaptations work, but honestly, this wasn't so much an adaptation as an altogether different project that just happened to have characters of the same name. I was so excited when I heard the film was being made; my excitement has not only waned, but has ceased to exist. Sorry for the rain on your parade.
After reading some reviews I'm not sure what to expect. I will watch it to form my own opinions.

I was hoping to see raw honesty. I don't need another "preaching to the choir" film. I need something to wake up the sleeping giant that will rattle a few non-believers heads as well.

I have watched Courageous and the like and though the message is delivered the messengers are two-dimensional. I hope BLJ is not.
Finally a movie that takes an honest an realistic view of the christian walk. I loved the book, and the movie was just as good if not better. It is refreshing to see a movie that is not filled with cheesy christian cliches. But takes a hard look at the true journey of the christian faith. Great job again Taylor and Miller! Thank you!

 

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