‘Blue Like Jazz,’ review and the art of war

Blue Like Jazz movieLast fall a friend of mine, Jay Sanders (who you should be reading, by the way) sent me a message that he had tickets to a pre-screening of Blue Like Jazz, the Don Miller written, Steve Taylor directed film, based on Miller’s book of the same name. In the providence of God Jay had to go back home and bale hay or something, so my wife and I were able to use his tickets and attend the very late night screening held at a theater at Discover Mills mall in Duluth, GA.

(I knew of the Kickstarter event to fund the film and had chipped in a little myself–enough to get a “thank you” phone call one night from Steve Taylor. Being the old, sleepy sort, I let the unrecognized number go to voice mail and did not even get to talk to him. When I finally see him in Nashville I’m gonna pin him down for 20 minutes on the street.)

Our pre-screening was a rough cut. Nothing other than the basic storyline was for certain. I think most of the filming was done, but there was no soundtrack and some other movie-lingo stuff had not been completed. Nevertheless the direction of the film was clear and easy to follow.

What had been made known previously was that the movie would not be just like the book. That would have been a near impossibility anyway. Instead, the movie would focus on the year that Donald Miller (portrayed by Marshall Allman, True Blood) left his “conservative” Texas, Southern Baptist upbringing to attend “ultra-liberal” Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In almost every way Reed was the antithesis of what Miller had known growing up in the deep south. Open homosexuality, flaunted unbelief and celebrated debauchery were the norm. Admitting faith in Christ was not exactly encouraged.

Miller’s relationships with Penny (Claire Holt, Pretty Little Liars), a girl who found Christ in her literature class, Lauryn (Tania Raymonde, Lost), a lesbian he meets in the restroom, and the annually-elected “Pope” of the campus (Justin Welborn) are explored as he alternately struggles to understand and suppress his faith.

The gospel is subtle in BLJ. There is no Romans Road or God’s Simple Plan of Salvation. There is, however, for those with ears to hear, serious talk about what it really means to be a follower of Christ. Penny is an authentic Christ follower who simply refuses to buckle into the void of spiritual darkness as we expect from Don at any moment. Rather than losing God at Reed, she finds him there. Her unwavering devotion leads to an unexpected decision that clearly demonstrates the heart of God for people without Him.

The movie will be uncomfortable for some Christians, while others will pump a fist and say, “YES!” How you received the book is likely how you will receive the movie.

As others have already noted, Blue Like Jazz is not grown from the same soil as your general Christian movie. In fact they don’t call it a Christian movie at all. Instead it should be seen as a movie about a Christian. As one person noted it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is it tells what happened instead of focusing on what should have happened or what you should do in the same situation.

Like the book, and like jazz, Steve Taylor’s film version does not always resolve. Every conflicted moment is not answered, the dots are not above every i, nor crosses on every t, or ties on every bow. This is not the movie most churches will show on Sunday night, extending a come forward invitation at the end. Some scenes are caricatures of what all believers know is wrong with Christianity: bad church puppetry, a cross-shaped pinata, and immorality in the church among them. Some of these scenes are cringe worthy. Not because they are poorly done, but because, like a stinging rebuke from a beloved mentor they hit too close to home.

Penny and Don Blue Like Jazz movie

Penny (Claire Holt) and Don (Marshall Allman) talk in a bike shop.

I see Blue Like Jazz as a conversation starter, not a conversation finisher. In that, I believe it to be a great tool for the kingdom.

The movie ends with a re-enactment of one of the book’s more poignant moments: the confessional booth on the campus at Reed.

Blue Like Jazz is not like–and I mean thoroughly unlike–the recent movies that have hit the top of the box office. But, neither is the audience the same. And that’s okay…

At least it should be.

Unfortunately, according to Taylor, a skirmish has broken out between the makers of Jazz and other followers of Christ who also make movies. Those movies are a little more tidy, and more appealing to people who prefer their stories to resolve. This is especially true when those stories involve theological themes. So, someone always get saved, prayers are always answered to show the power of God, and, similar to a sitcom, things work out in the end.

According to an email sent by Taylor (the content of which was also on the movie blog) a representative for the other movie company threatened not to hire for their future films anyone who worked on the Taylor film. Taylor also referenced an email sent by Provident Films, a distribution company, warned theater owners not to show the BLJ trailer before another Christian film, saying (in part):

this can not happen – the trailer actually has the words “I hate Jesus” in the voiceover along with a number of images that will be very offensive to catholics

it is in the best interest of theaters to not run the trailer because they are going to have a lot of angry patrons if they do

thanks for your help here

(The sender of the email acknowledged the content was wrong, and, owing to an oversight, the email was sent before the correction was made. She also told Christianity Today that Taylor “has my cell phone number; he could have called.”)

My purpose here is not to take sides for the very reason I do not want either the Blue Like Jazz supporters or the Courageous supporters to take sides, lobbing rhetorical or Internet grenades toward each other. From a financial perspective, the market is plenty big enough to sell both kinds of films. From a spiritual perspective, there are more than enough unbelievers to try and reach them with more than one kind of presentation. There is no legitimate, biblical reason for anyone to try and make this an either/or argument. This is both/and.

Jesus said, “Anyone who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). If God has called and gifted His people for the making of films in multiple genres that can rightly present the story of God’s working in His world, why should we cast aspersions? Why should we give unbelievers yet another reason to reject what the movies are striving for them to embrace? Will we carelessly turn a gospel situation into a KONY 2012 styled over-reaction, slamming doors shut rather than holding them open?

Is our tent not big enough to be a multi-plex?

Blue Like Jazz is not Super Christian, and it does not need to be. It is what all means are: it is a tool. If we are willing to invest time seeing the movie with non-believers, it has the potential to be a great tool for the Kingdom. If we want the tool to do all the work without any effort on our part, it will fail. And, if it fails, the fault will reside with those who would never expect a ratchet to change a spark-plug without a human arm involved, yet expect an evangelistic tool to win souls without benefit of a human witness.

Blue Like Jazz is a Steve Taylor Film. It is rated PG-13 for language, thematic elements, and a wild, Mardi Gras style party scene.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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