An Semi-Insider’s Guide to the “Blue Like Jazz” Film

Arts, Featured, Film — By on June 9, 2011 at 1:38 pm

The last explicitly Christian film I saw was 12 years ago. (I do not count The Passion of the Christ.) I was working in a small medical supply sales office, along with a few other Christians. One Friday, they invited me to The Omega Code‘s opening. We have to show Hollywood we support Christian movies, they told me, which made general sense. I was in the midst of trying to win my bible college ex-girlfriend back, so I’d thrown myself headlong into ultra-Christian culture. I was reading (and, admittedly, enjoying) the first few books of the Left Behind series, so I was all about Armageddon. The Omega Code sounded promising.

Over dinner, I told my dad I was going to see a Christian movie that night.

“It’ll be awful. They always guilt us into watching that crap,” he said dismissively.

He was right. The Omega Code scored an 8% on Rotten Tomatoes (my favorite part of that page is the audience score of 39%, which probably started as a church campaign somewhere in Tulsa). I think that was the beginning of the end, when I realized this subculture I was a part of was willing to excuse nearly any artistic travesty if the Lord’s name was attached. I wanted no part of it.

Nearly all Christians our age with discerning tastes reached this realization at some point. Distrust of Christian film making runs deep, deeper than any other art medium, possibly because it’s so exclusive. Due to massive cost and effort, big Christian films don’t get made often, and no one wants to make a Christian film if Christians aren’t going to show up in droves. This, I think, was one of the reasons Blue Like Jazz struggled to find funding from rich, white Conservative investors. If you can’t guilt Christians into buying tickets, what’s the point?

(The story the film’s funding is well-known in our circles, and deserving of more examination another day.)

 

When the official trailer was released on Monday, the same day it was to be screened by a test audience of 600 people at Donald Miller’s Storyline Conference, the overwhelming public response seemed to be one of nervous optimism. Nearly every detail of the film’s development brings out an “on the other hand” twinge.

The trailer gives me chills BUT it’s a Christian movie.

The film’s storyline has little to do with the book BUT at least Donald Miller helped assemble the screenplay.

Director Steve Taylor’s last film starred Michael W. Smith BUT it’s still Steve Taylor, a long-standing symbol of subversive Christianity.

Much of this apprehension could be summed up by Jonathan D. Fitzgerald’s column for Patheos, “Is It Christian Art, or Good Art?” Most of us want Blue Like Jazz to be great film, and not just great in comparison to other Christian movies. We want it to be the film equivalent of Sufjan Stevens or Makoto Fujimura. We want our art to be accepted without a condescending pat on the head.

That anxiety is prevalent from fans of the books to the cast and crew itself. A lot is riding on Blue Like Jazz. Part of that stems from our innate distrust that an explicitly Christian film could actually be any good. Partly, it’s because much of the film was publicly funded through Kickstarter, the largest crowd-sourcing project like this in history. Most flops let down massive studios with deep pockets. If Blue Like Jazz fails, it’ll let down every donor, every fan of the book, everyone who cautiously thought, “Maybe this time…” No one assumes Blue Like Jazz will be the 21st century movie equivalent to the Sistine Chapel, and I think most of us would settle for any score higher than 60 on Metacritic. Hell, some of us are just relieved Kirk Cameron isn’t playing Don. But that nervous optimism betrays some very, very high hopes.

So is Blue Like Jazz any good?

First, I need to lay out a number of caveats, both about myself and the film’s screening, which took place last Monday at the Gerding Theater one block north of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

1) I can’t claim objectivity here. I like to think I approach this film detached and neutral, but the facts don’t back it up. I was involved in the first couple writing sessions . Director Steve Taylor, Director of Photography Ben Pearson and Donald Miller are good friends. Also, there’s a character in the film who is named after me, which I’ll admit is pretty f***ing cool.

2) The cut we saw was not even close to final. I spoke to a number of people who’d seen previous cuts, and they’ve been amazed at how, with each round of editing, the film improves by leaps and the story arc becomes more focused. There’s still much more editing to go, some of which will be guided by the screening’s audience feedback.

3) The film had a number of technical issues, all of which should be fixed before the film is officially released. A number of very funny visual gags were missed simply due to lighting. The biggest problems were with the audio, as some characters were difficult to hear. After a while, the audio and visual tracks were out of sync, and the film had to be stopped for about 15 minutes. The audience was very forgiving, but some narrative momentum must have been lost.

4) I’m no film critic. This was the first I’ve seen in a theater in over a year and a half.

Those out of the way, here are my thoughts.

Narrative Flow

The first question I ask myself in critiquing a film, television show, or reading a book, is whether I’m paying attention. I don’t have the most robust attention span, so if I check my watch or Facebook every once in a while, no big deal. For most of Blue Like Jazz, I was leaning forward, rapt with curiosity. Some of this can be chalked up to being a fan of the book and being connected to the project, but nearly all of the audience was with me. There were slow moments here and there, but they were fairly minor, and many of them were due to audio or visual issues.

Characters

One of the most impressive aspects of the film was its star, Marshall Allman. Most people will know Allman for his roles in True Blood, Hostage and Prison Break, but I knew him from small parts in two of my favorite shows, Mad Men and Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I liked his character in Mad Men a great deal, but I didn’t know what to expect beyond that. I was particularly impressed by Allman’s comedic timing and ability to dramatically improve even the smallest of moments with perfect expressions.

The other standout was Claire Holt, who plays Penny (a character based on Burnside’s social justice editor, Penny Carothers). I was a bit nervous after seeing an early trailer a few months ago, where Penny’s lines seemed stilted, and she looked far too glamorous for a typical Reed College student. Somehow, though, Claire Holt nailed it. I kept thinking, I wish the real Penny was here to see this.

Going through further characters will ruin the story to some extent, but nearly all were dynamic and well-suited. A few narrative leaps are a stretch to follow, but all of it was believable.

Book v. Film

Anyone who’s seen the trailer, read Million Miles, or followed the film’s progress will know the film’s story arc is nothing like the book. It’s important fans of the book realize this and view the view the two separately. I think movie captures the heart of the book, and there’s enough there to reward fans fans, but I also think in some ways it’s superior, particularly in the sense that it is a straight story crammed into an approximately 90 minute box.

Worries

My biggest worry was the film would wallow in the sort of indie quirkiness that’s been run into the ground since Wes Anderson released Rushmore 13 years ago. The first writing sessions took place before Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, and before Michael Cera became an indie quirkfest prancing prince, back when he was just an awkward kid fending off tossed brooms on Arrested Development.

There’s nothing wrong with funny, endearing quirks as long as they serve the story, but many indie films in the last decade seemed solely intent on parading a bunch of weirdos across the screen. Look at this guy! He may look like just an adorable elderly shopkeeper, but he’s also a juggling unicyclist who fought in the Dutch Underground during World War II! QUIRKY!

There’s whimsy to be had in Blue Like Jazz, but nearly all of it serves to further the story. The film is set in two disparate and eccentric subcultures: the world of Southern Baptists and the world of wildly liberal, highly intellectual Reed College students. Both sides may bristle at their depiction, but of the two, I’d say the Reedies’ portrayal was more exaggerated.

Score

I hesitate to say this, since it appears I’m diminishing the film as a whole, but the film’s score was my second favorite element of Blue Like Jazz. Most of the score was assembled by Danny Seim, the drummer for Portland-based Menomena, a band which, in my humble opinion, is the best outside the British Isles. A Love Supreme is also heavily featured, as well as one song by songwriter Katie Herzig. I know indie music is another overused element in independent film-making, but damned if this didn’t work spectacularly.

Overall

Blue Like Jazz has some kinks to work out. Right now, I’d say it’s somewhere between a B and a B+. By the time it’s released publicly (from what I could glean, the target is early 2012, with limited showings as part of a fall tour), I predict it’ll be an A. I’m not grading on a Christian art curve here, either. I really think the story is that great, the actors and characters that good. Mostly, though, I think people will love it because of my favorite part aspect of the film: the final act. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a film’s ending elicit a hearty cheer, but I know I heard one Monday night.

Chances are, if you’re reading this site, reading Blue Like Jazz was a life-altering experience. That book means something to me I have difficulty defining as we reach the 8 year anniversary of its publication. I can’t even read it again. I’ve tried at least three times, but part of me knows it won’t be the same as when I read it first, all those years ago, when I was 23 and trying to figure out who I was and where I was going, and Donald Miller’s words were like a friend telling me he was there, too, and let’s travel this road together.

The film version is not that, I don’t think. It’s a wonderfully told story. I laughed more during Blue Like Jazz than I have at any Judd Apatow film since Anchorman. I don’t know what my favorite film critics, like Keith Phipps and Noel Murray over the at AV Club, will say. What I do know: the thousands and thousands of us with a chip in this game can breathe a bit easier.

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    17 Comments

  • john sr says:

    I am so glad to read your review. I, too, await the movie with hope and a little nervousness. Can’t wait until 2012.

  • “This was the first I’ve seen in a theater in over a year and a half.”

    This is an assumption, but having young children of my own, I’m thinking I may know the reason for such a line.

    Great write up, Jordan!

  • Jeff Jackson says:

    I can’t not see the movie, but ever since the announcement (that seems like it was a decade ago) I have been a little nervous. This article helps but I’m pretty sure for the first time I will be the “Book is better than the movie” guy.

  • Steve Simpson says:

    Personally, I wish the trailer had not mentioned God so many times and focused more on “Don’s” journey. While I don’t think the film should con viewers into seeing something they didn’t expect, the trailer makes it sound like a movie by and for Christians. It sold me on the movie, but I think the film deserves a wider audience than just emergent Christian types. Unrequited love that leads to faith in something bigger would be a great theme. Still, I can’t wait to see the movie. When is the LA premiere and how do I get tix?!

    • Kim Gottschild says:

      Great point, Steve!

    • Dave Carey says:

      Yeah, I agree with this. I really hope that this isn’t the trailer that is shown in theaters or on TV leading up to the movie opening. But, in contrast to how you felt, it didn’t sell me on the movie. In fact, it worried me a bit. If I was going just on the trailer and had no other knowledge of this project, I would almost be tempted to say that the movie looks like it’s probably not very good. As one of the thousands of backers of the film, who was (and still is) very excited to see it, I’m hoping that it’s just the trailer and that the movie itself ends up being great. (Jordan’s review gives me hope that that might be the case.)

      But, yeah, I really hope they come up with a new trailer. This one definitely makes it look like a movie made for the specific audience of evangelical Chrsitians.

  • Kim Gottschild says:

    I’m wondering if the movie will make it to Indy?

  • Thanks for the article, Jordan. This is a project I’ve been intrigued with since day one and it’s amazing to see how it’s come along. I wish I could have made it to Portland to see the first screening. Maybe it will come to St. Louis so I can take my friends to it and hopefully see myself as “Man in Green Coat.”

    By the way, I love what you say about the book. I wrote a blog the other day and had very similar sentiments. Click my name above if you care to read it. Oh, and the book is just as good the second time around.

  • jo hilder says:

    can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait!

  • Gideon says:

    I’m against the film. I don’t understand, when will we learn that a production of art, which Blue certainly is that, should not be altered or profaned. It was an artwork that was birthed through sweat and toil. Mr. Steve Taylor, how can you re-birth a child?

    • Q: What do “The English Patient”, “True Grit”, “A River Runs Through it”, “Unforgiven”, and “Legends of the Fall” all have in common?

      A: They were all novels adapted into highly acclaimed films.

      I’m not saying that BLJ will or won’t work on the big screen. I want it to. But there are several examples of stories successfully being told on multiple mediums.

    • Benjamin Dolson says:

      I agree with Larry. Good stories are worth repeating, even in a different medium. It seems that the key is for the re-telling to also be an act of art…so, it’s not re-birthing a child, but maybe birthing a cousin (okay…this metaphor is getting weird now).

    • Jordan says:

      I would’ve mentioned “Forrest Gump”, which is a pretty great film, and a freaking awful book. Seriously. Did you know, in the book, Forrest Gump goes to space and then lives in an African jungle for a while with monkeys? One of the worst books I’ve ever read.

  • Lori Ventola says:

    I saw the screening Monday night and I think I’m more worried about the narrative leaps than you are. I found myself calling on outside knowledge of Don Miller’s books and blog to fill in some big gaps for myself. Seems to me that a good dollop of voiceover, well-written from Don’s pen, could fix the problem *and* soothe the souls of those who view the movie with love of the book in their hearts.

  • Vanessa H. says:

    I read Blue Like Jazz twice and I LOVED IT both times. I was thrilled when I heard they were making a movie and have tried to stay updated on it’s release. I am sad to say that I am REALLY disappointed in the “artistic liberty” that this movie has taken in comparison to the book. I get that the movie usually won’t be exactly like the book, or even do it justice sometimes. But this looks really stupid, and not at all encompasing of the essence of the book. He’s not just some weirdo who decides to fit in by acting goofy. He knows what he’s been taught to believe but then exposes himself to other views of the world so as to glean a more well-rounded picture of who God is and what makes someone a “Christian”. I would rather have seen that journey come to life on the big screen rather than this “quirky” dumb movie. And where did the “homosexual” theme come into play? I haven’t read it in a few years but I don’t remember him ever going down that route. What, a movie has to play to the homosexual awakening theme just to make it relevant?

    I was really looking forward to seeing someone cast as the lead who could pull of the nature of someone who was moderately self-reflective and intuitive. This moron looks like a tool with a “deer in the headlights” expression. Maybe my view of him is a little tainted from his role on TrueBlood – where he pretty much looks the same.

    I was so excited to see this in theaters and now I’m not even sure if I would rent it. Hope the movie is better than the trailer.

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