Blue Like Jazz Movie ReviewBurnside Sells Out, Essays, Film — By Keaton Lamle on April 18, 2012 at 10:20 am
Faith and art… Shouldn’t this suck?
It is probably safe to say that most films that will open nationwide on April 13 did not crowd source their funding. Blue Like Jazz did. The film, based on the NY Times bestselling collection of essays on Christian Spirituality (seriously), lost its financial backing and completely folded shortly into production, until a couple of disappointed fans launched a Kickstarter 1 campaign in one last-ditch attempt to save the film. Obviously, the campaign worked: The film raised more money from fans than any project ever has via Kickstarter, more than $350,000. Private backers footed the rest of the bill and the film is set to release.
Prior knowledge of these facts left me with a warm feeling towards the filmmakers, but low expectations for the film itself as I sat through the opening scene. I was fairly shocked by what I saw. The story follows Don, a Texas youth minister who finds it increasingly harder to deal with the circus that is his Southern Baptist upbringing/church (Within minutes we are treated to a puppet “ministry” that rivals the best of Michael Scott for most awkward comedic example of unexamined racism, a pinata containing individually pre-packaged communion cups, etc…). When his drug-addled and lecherous father enrolls him into what is routinely touted as “the most godless college in America Reed College in Portland, OR”, Don cannot get out of the Bible Belt fast enough. The film’s portrayal of Reed is what surprised me. Profanity, lesbians, and drug use abound (In fact, I was tempted to think that Reed was falling victim to Christian caricaturization until I did some googling), and it isn’t long before tumultuous events back in Texas cause Don to question his faith in his new and…liberated surroundings, culminating with an emotional climax of extended dialogue in a confession booth during the school’s spring drug-fueled free-for-all Renn Fayre.
This is where the film shocked me. Where most faith-based films (and I use that term loosely) preach, Blue Like Jazz breathes. In spots where lesser efforts gloss over and smooth out the rough edges, director Steve Taylor insists that his audience stew in the dissonance. In short, Blue Like Jazz exudes that which American Evangelical Christianity has fought violently to conceal: Humanity. Sexuality, shame, abandonment, shortcomings, and addictions are all explored in earnest with no easy answers offered. Ultimately, the film digs through the grime of life and instead of finding solutions, finds Jesus.
Predictably, the production staff’s decision to avoid keeping the film “family-friendly” and “clean” have led to the usual Christian backlash (that guy who pastors the church that made Facing the Giants and that firefighting movie with Mike Seaver in it has declared some sort of Christian brotherly-boycott). Taylor has responded by saying the following , “I don’t know where we got this idea that Christian entertainment must be family friendly… In fact, if we edited the Bible to be family-friendly it would be a considerably shorter book. This film is not family friendly. It’s not meant to be.” It is tough to say how badly these detractors will hurt the success of a movie that genuinely deserves to be seen, while definitely earning it’s PG-13 rating. If there is justice in the universe, a surprising opening weekend will lead to wide(r) release and sleeper hit status. As it is, it looks like many people across the country will have to drive an hour or more to see the film.
In short, Blue Like Jazz is highly recommended. True Blood‘s Marshall Allman proves more than capable as Don, and the supporting cast ranges from competent to phenomenal. Likewise, the technical prowess of the filmmakers proves a departure from what we have been conditioned to expect of art made from a faith perspective: The cinematography is truly excellent, with colorful Portland jumping off the screen. Characters, both faithful and faithless are portrayed realistically and with nuance. Granted, the film is not wholly without flaws: The soundtrack (by Portland mainstays Menomena), while quality is used early and often and derails a couple of scenes rather than supporting them. But overall the film is a bastion of quality in a segment of the industry that tends to consist of shit sandwiches. Like Jesus, Taylor and Miller have dug deep into the garbage and redeemed something that probably didn’t deserve it- Christian cinema.
1 A website that channels donations to fund creative projects.