Blue Like Jazz: the movie is as great as the book

I had the privilege of seeing Blue Like Jazz (the movie) recently and thought it was a fantastic newcomer to the world of faith-related films. I say privilege because this movie almost never saw the light of day. Due to funding issues early in production, BLJ was almost relegated to the annals of movies-that-never-were. Instead, a couple of devoted fans turned that failure around by launching a project for it on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. In just ten days, the project raised the $125K it initially wanted, then continued to climb. By the project’s deadline, roughly 4,500 contributors had contributed almost $346K. I was one of those contributors and my donation gave me the honorable status of “Associate Producer.” At the time, this made it the most funded Kickstarter project ever (see BLJ featured in this Kickstarter blog post). You can read Don’s synopsis of this journey on his blog.

My bias runs deeper than just being a Kickstarter donor, however. I’ve enjoyed Donald Miller’s books for years. His disarming writing style and nonjudgmental approach to tough questions of faith strongly resonate with me. Blue Like Jazz was my introduction to Miller’s books. I don’t know when or why I decided to pick it up, but the book has since become one of the few I feel compelled to give to others who, like me, approach faith with a critical mind. The movie, like the book, tell a chapter in Miller’s life; his wrestle with God during his transition from high school to college.

It tracks the mystery of what a personal relationship with God looks like in a disarmingly genuine way and leaves out the preachiness, condescension, and over intellectual-ness most books in the “Christian” genre fall into. I’d even go so far as to say BLJ keeps such enlightened company as classics like Screwtape Letters in presenting the story of God’s love as just that: a story, not a lecture or scientific proof.

Some of my favorite moments, themes, and quotes in the movie:

  • When Don is hanging out with his freethinking dad, he gets the sage advice to “Write your own story,” don’t let others write your story (plan your life) for you.
  • Attending Reed College – and surrounded by primarily non-Christians for the first time – Don finds that many liberal-minded individuals proclaim themselves “open minded”…unless it’s about Christ or anything to do with traditional religion.
  • A familiar paradox is evident in the Reed student body: they emphasize wanting to be free, yet one of Don’s first friends there advises him to “get in the closet, Baptist boy, and stay there.”
  • The idea that you can get “lost a sea of individuality” – that is, everyone is trying so hard to be something different, that a sense of community, of belongingness, of a common “tribe” gets lost.
  • I loved Don’s cameo as pretentious author giving a reading in a book store!
  • While it was dramatized, I got the distinct impression that Reed College is full of geniuses…doing mostly stupid things.
  • At a pivotal point, Penny says “It turns out I like Jesus…a lot.”
  • The scenes where Don is hanging out with mostly emotionally messy individuals struck me as the very crowd Jesus is described as hanging with.
  • A thread I found interesting in the story is that while Christians can’t escape (and shouldn’t deny) the brokenness of the church, likewise those who embrace a hedonistic lifestyle should acknowledge the emptiness and meaninglessness in it.
  • “I hated them because I thought they made me look like a fool.”
  • “God isn’t like me.” (Don says this during an apology for how he has behaved and how he represented (or denied) Christ.)

While BLJ may have been denounced by conservative Christians, I found the film set the bar a bit higher for “Christian” films. For one, actual actors with actual acting talent were employed. While I don’t mean to slam other films specifically, it’s obvious when amateurs deliver lines and when seasoned actors do so. The only aspect I found lacking was that I would have preferred a bit more character development, especially in the supporting cast. All in all, though, I’m extremely glad to have supported this effort, I’m proud of all of those who made it happen, and I hope to see more films like this in the future.

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