So, first of all we’d better start with a disclaimer: This movie could not have been made without me. Well, me and about 4,495 other people. But mostly me.
I’ll get to that in a minute, but first…
Blue Like Jazz
USA: 13 March 2012 (SXSW)
USA: 13 April 2012
Years ago, after Chariots of Fire came out, it occurred to me that it was the best Christian movie ever made…and that it wouldn’t have been nearly as good if it had been made by fundamentalist Christians. First of all, they would have completely done away with the Harold Abrahams storyline (a Jew you know) and concentrated solely on the Eric Liddell story. They probably would have toned down some of the rough edges and the conflict, and they certainly wouldn’t have hired a **shudder** gay actor to play Eric Liddell. Heavens to Murgatroyd! The result of course, would have been a watered down piece of forgettable milktoast like…well…most “Christian” art.
That was the early 80s when I was still a fundamentalist myself. Admittedly, I haven’t seen Fireproof or The Grace Card or any of the more recent crop of Christian movies, so I can’t speak to their production values. But I will say this: Blue Like Jazz is the best Christian movie that I have seen that has been made by actual Christians. The reason? It’s because it’s real. It’s not afraid to ask the tough questions, and it understands that the answers aren’t easy.
I’ve mentioned before that there is a group of Christian writers out there that I really respect. They include Donald Miller, whose book this movie is based on, also Matthew Paul Turner, and my old friend from LA Susan Isaacs. They aren’t afraid to cast a cynical eye at the Church and mainstream Christian culture, while still upholding their love of Christ and His people. This lapsed fundie finds their work to be refreshing and powerful.
Others disagree, however. You might not be able to find them at your local Lifeway or Family Christian store. Or if you do, the books might carry a warning label to “read with discernment.” Walking into these stores is like being immersed in a bright, shiny world where your marriage can be fixed, your problems can be solved, and your life can be purpose driven all while listening to songs from the Christian Top 40. It’s like living in a Thomas Kinkade wet dream. Except that “real” Christians don’t have wet dreams.
Donald Miller co-wrote the screenplay based on his book and his own life. It’s the story of a young Southern Baptist boy from Texas who is on his way to a Baptist college to pursue his life of Baptist fulfillment when he finds out about a terrible hypocrisy among his church leadership. This event causes Don to make an abrupt left turn and follow his “backslidden” father’s advice to go to Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
According to Don’s Dad, Reed College students have an average IQ of 138, but it’s also known as “the most godless college campus in America;” perfect for a smart young man on the run from God. Like a rabbit chasing a carrot (a motif in this movie), young Don takes to this godless campus with gusto. He musses up his nice Southern Baptist hair, starts wearing messier clothes, partakes in liquor and “leaded” brownies, and learns how to trash religion with the best of them.
As Don, Marshall Allman does a great job portraying a likable young man who’s trying to find his way in a new paradigm where things aren’t quite as black and white as he was led to believe. Nothing he does in this movie seems unreal or actory to me. Tania Raymonde is great as Don’s **gasp** lesbian friend who shows him how Reed College works. Claire Holt plays Penny, Don’s potential love interest who challenges him to find a balance between his cynicism and his faith.
The real standout in this film is Justin Welborn as The Pope. Well, a Pope. Apparently every year during Renn Fayre at Reed they elect a Pope. This Pope takes his job very seriously, except that his job is to convince his fellow students that there is no God and no answers. Don falls under his spell immediately, but The Pope (like all of us) has a secret.
I just can’t tell you how great it is to watch a movie that wrestles with these issues. That dares to show someone struggling with his faith without a big Billy Graham style conversion scene at the end. Well, it will be no surprise to you that this movie almost didn’t get made at all. It’s far too edgy for most Christian production companies. In fact the producers of Fireproof and Courageous actually threatened to blacklist anyone who worked on BLJ. Nice.
One of the backers – well – backed out and the movie was pretty much dead until a couple of guys started a campaign to raise $125,000 on Kickstarter. I was one of 4,495 people who pitched in. I donated the princely sum of $10, which actually entitled me to a “thank you” call from the director Steve Taylor – who was one of my favorite Christian musicians back in the 80s when I still listened to Christian Music. I never gave them my number because I knew that if a call came in from an unknown number that I wouldn’t answer it (too many creditors) and that would just be frustrating for Steve Taylor and myself.
BLJ did play briefly in theaters, but not one very close to me, and at the time I wasn’t working so I couldn’t justify the trip to go see it. Now it’s finally out on DVD and available at Best Buy (yay!) and WalMart (boo!) as well as Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix. It is most definitely not available at Lifeway. It apparently doesn’t depict the “way” that they think “life” should be: People drink and cuss, and Don spends the whole movie hanging out with a lesbian and doesn’t even cast one demon out of her.
Lifeway can severely bite me.
BLJ isn’t perfect. Some of the writing comes off as a little too impressed with it’s own cleverness, and some of the depictions of campus life don’t play as well as they should. For instance, a bunch of students dress up as robots and stage a very weak protest at a corporate bookstore (where the real Donald Miller appears as a “Trendy Writer”). Penny seems to be giving Don a hard time about not really knowing why he’s there, but I never got a sense of why any of them were there. I dunno…I bought my copy of the BLJ book at Books-A-Million so maybe I’m just bitter.
But any complaints I have are minor. Let me put it this way: You should see this movie. If, like me, you’re still trying to find your way towards God in a non-fundamentalist mindset, you should see this movie. If you hate God and especially what Christians have made God out to be, you should see it. I think it…and God…might just surprise you. This Misplaced Boy finds Blue Like Jazz to be very messy, but also very real…like life.
The Misplaced Boy MST3K Scale:
So on a scale from Dr. F (awful) to Joel (perfect) I’m giving Blue Like Jazz a very real…
Random Quote Whore Quote:
“Blue Like Jazz is a cured, courteous, landfall of a movie! Marshall Allman is tabu!!!”