Friday, October 12, 2012

Blue Like Jazz (the movie): A Personal Review

Justin Welborn as "The Pope" and Marshall Allman as Donald Miller in Blue Like Jazz.
The film Blue Like Jazz's widest theatrical release was 136 screens, and a total box office gross was just under $600,000 (just under the total cost to make the film).

I imagine that many, include distributor Roadside Attractions hoped that the wild success of the the 2003 essay collection, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, would not only capture the book readers, but also spread to a wider audience.

I read Blue Like Jazz in 2003, picking it up at a Christian book store, namely because I liked the cover and thought the subtitle "Non-religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality" very interesting. I read the book, and bought copies for others. Soon I would run across others discussing the book. I had never read anything like it before.

At the time I found myself refreshed by an author writing with such a unique and different voice about God, and while he presented some negativity towards Christian subcultures, I could relate to this, but appreciated that he wasn't throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The reality is, that this movie probably came out too late. 9 years after the book was published others have in their own ways, whether it's books or other media (magazines, websites, blogs, etc.) presented thoughts in the same sphere of thoughts here. Many, far less effectively or with theological perspectives and conclusions that are weak, illogical, destructive, or seemingly written for shock value.

All that to say, the novelty of Blue Like Jazz has probably worn off.

When former Christian music artist Steve Taylor took on the project of directing and raising the funds to bring Blue Like Jazz to the big screen, I imagine his goal was to make a move that wasn't pitched as a "Christian film." Although, when this film was released in theaters, I remember the tension. This film did not come with mainstream church endorsements that have in recent years helped some smaller budget films. Additionally, there certainly didn't seem to be any draw or buzz campaign that drew in a broader audience (try as you might to not identify it as a non-Christian film, the wider audience usually isn't seeking out films from this genre, nor did it have the budget for it's own legitimate wide campaign).

And so, I didn't see it in the theater, and sort of forgot about the film, until I finally got around to watching the movie this past week.

It's hard for me to write about this film from a distant perspective, and frankly, from a distant perspective what I would say would be generic and uninteresting -- probably some minor praise for some of the performers, the films efforts and misses. Yet, the topics of this film are remarkably personal to me.

Over a decade ago, before Blue Like Jazz came out, I thought I would enjoy starting my own film production company, hardly knowing what that would really mean, and the intention of my theoretical company was to make films that dealt with characters and stories dealing with spiritual, mainly Christian themes, without being preachy or saccharine. I wanted to make films that reflected life, that presented people outside of their stereotype. Stories with Christian elements even, where a conversion experience wasn't always the climax or resolution.

So, when I watched Blue Like Jazz, I saw in the film something I had once dreamed of. There are a number of Christian films, even one's with theatrical releases, but in the same way Blue Like Jazz was different for the genre, the film followed suit.

I read a review of the film by Hollywood Chicago and agree with the assessment that "Whenever an aspiring artist attempts to speak for a group rather than oneself, it’s almost always a recipe for tediously preachy dreck."

In speaking for oneself, rather than an individual, there were times when this film pushed boundaries that could easily offend a Christian audience. When it comes to offendable sequences, I don't think it's the plot elements (such as a married youth pastor who sleeps with a divorcee),  but rather the more subtle nuances. These nuances include the inclusion of swearing in the film, substance abuse, a few borderline raunchy moments, and characters, such as the Lauryn (Tania Raymonde) who not only is a lesbian, but who's sexual orientation the film makes no comment on it, is simply just an element of her character.

This film is certainly a message film, and despite it's attempt at mainstream appeal, I still felt like the film was speaking to Christians, as a critique of their efforts to fit into their own subculture, at the cost of acting out the beliefs that they profess. And if there is a message here for the non-Christian, it is a simple message that Christians are often not a reflection of who Jesus is, but rather humans struggling to fit in and reconcile their faith with the world around them.

In all honesty, somewhere in this I find my own self being uncomfortable, maybe it's in my own knowledge of my personal failings to live in authentic way, with a fluency for the things of God that show in all my circles (not just the one's where it's convenient). I think there is a discomfort as well in the fact that Steve Taylor and Donald Miller are not speaking for "the group" but rather out of personal experiences, and so where they avoid being preachy, their less-safe perspective is something I'm not used to watching. There are times I watch and thank "I would have done that differently" or "I think I would have left that out."

And perhaps that why we need more films like Blue Like Jazz. We need films that are complex (and yet still also attempting to entertain), that risk offense to those with different beliefs (Christian and non-Christians alike), yet don't set out the gate with the goal to offend. Rather, set in mind the goal to present something that is authentic and true.

I don't think I can recommend this film as a masterful piece of art, nor can I recommend it as the world's most powerful message film. Or even a message that I fully endorse. But I can recommend it as a film for the discerning viewer to watch, discuss, and maybe even realize that what has been made here is one-of-a-kind, and that nothing else in this years film season is quite like it. In a time when originality does not abound, that alone could make this film worth a viewing.

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