An Semi-Insider’s Guide to the “Blue Like Jazz” FilmArts, Featured, Film — By Jordan Green 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.