Blue Like Jazz strikes a chord
It was the summer of 2005 that I discovered the rambling wit and disarming charm of one Donald Miller on display in a weathered copy of Blue Like Jazz I borrowed from a friend. This was after my first year at university, a year filled with strange moments, people and ideas that punctured my faith and punctuated my exit from the church bubble I’d grown up in. Miller’s voice helped me to process the events of that year, and taught me to hold onto faith by letting it breathe in more open spaces and stranger places than before.
Seven years later and the book that became a phenomenon is now a film, the story of its making recounted in Miller’s 2009 book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. That book told the story of this film: of writing a script about a book of conversations that doesn’t have an actual story, of raising money and support, and is now reaching its climax before our eyes.
Thus, given an inside look into the difficulty of translating a book of ideas on a microscopic budget, and given the history of previous ‘Christian’ films, I wasn’t expecting much.
Make no mistake, this is not Malick-does-High-School. And it’s not a barrel of laughs like 21 Jump St either. But the story of a boy leaving home to discover his identity in the wildly antagonistic setting of Reed University, a place that looks like my university on an acid trip painted by Hieronymus Bosch, strikes a chord that the countless college sex romps served up by Hollywood just can’t.
The film does not stick very closely with the scattered structure of the book, but rather follows Don’s progression from on-fire-for-God youth pastor to freshman college rebel looking being pushed by the chaos of post-modern rebellion to the brink of despair. For those of us that lived a similar story, there is a resonance that is perhaps lost on other audiences, who may describe it as a PG-13 American Pie derivative with more God-talk than innuendo.
Director Steve Taylor manages to fashion a story and aesthetic that stands apart from the book without sacrificing the charm that made it so special. The actors, a mix of newcomers with a couple familiar faces (including Lost’s Tania Raymonde), aren’t going to win any Oscars, but given they were probably paid in donuts and Stumptown Coffee, do justice to the script and bring fresh realizations to characters that may have become well-worn in our minds after countless readings.
The central criticism that I, and many fans will undoubtedly reserve, is that Miller’s trademark sound bytes of wisdom, the ones that made Blue Like Jazz so special, are either lost in the spectacle of his descent into Reed College culture, or just forgotten entirely. As well, Marshall Allman’s portrayal of ‘Donny’ doesn’t quite do justice to the awkward, chubby, fish-out-of-water hero we fell in love with in the book, though it’s an admirable attempt.
All in all, the film should be praised for attempting to tell a story that often goes overlooked by Christian culture: the disillusionment of youth; and for pushing the edge of ‘Christian film-making’ towards a considerably more open-minded, realistic portrayal of youth culture. The film is not perfect, but it is memorable. And it is also important. As Blue Like Jazz was more than a book, this is also more than a film: it is the embodiment of an idea.
Can a generation of disillusioned youth bankroll and promote a film that tells their story, and engages culture in a discussion about real faith in a post-modern world?
The question then becomes not ‘is this film entertaining?’ but rather ‘is it worth supporting?’
For if we choose to get behind it, despite its flaws, maybe Christian culture at large (which was not exactly supportive of this project) will start to listen, and start to make better, edgier films. I suppose it’s up to us to decide if this is a stepping stone to better Christian films, or just a one-off.
So I encourage you to see it, and bring some friends, because I’d rather watch a film written by Donald Miller than Michael Bay any day of the week, and we need more stories that fight the good fight against the Stifler’s of this world, both on-screen and off. Wouldn’t you agree?