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Review of Blue Like Jazz: the Movie!

March 22, 2012

On Wednesday, March 14th I checked out the movie pre-screening of Blue Like Jazz, complete with Donald Miller in audience, film makers, shenanigans, and goings-on.  You wanna know what I thought?  Well read on friends!

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The website with trailer: http://www.bluelikejazzthemovie.com/

(note: If you don’t go see this movie on April 13th, you most likely won’t see it!  You have to, have to, have to check out on that weekend or you’ll miss it!)

A Little Background for the Uninitiated

When you read the words “Blue Like Jazz” you most likely had one of three responses.  One, “Wow, that book changed my life!  How in the sweet sweet Moses did they make a movie from it?”  Two, “Read it.  Liked it.  Over it.  That’s what you get for writing a book appealing to post moderns”.  Three, “Blue like what?”

For those of you in the “blue like what?” category, Blue Like Jazz is a best-selling book of Christian essays composed by Donald Miller and released in 2003.  For many, it is an incredibly special book, a watershed book even.

I know what you’re thinking.  Joel Osteen’s perfect teeth.  T.D. Jakes boogying out to a seat next to Oprah in an impeccable suit.  Something that includes 10 steps for financial and spiritual success.  It’s not that kind of Christian book.  That’s what makes it so special for so many.  The book’s full title tells you why it is distinct: “Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality”.  It is special because it is not a book written towards Christians at all and it is not written in Christian-ese.  It uses the post-moderns own voice and experiences to show how God is speaking to them, communicating directly with the hyper conscious post-modernity (Christian or not) that has been embedded into us by our culture.  You know, the hyper conscious post-modernity that’s screaming inside me to place and addendum to the above sentence “It’s not that kind of Christian book” that says, “… not that there is anything wrong with those kind of books …”

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TD!

Blue Like Jazz is a kind of plain speak, everyday wisdom, C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity to those threatened to be swallowed by the moral-muddying voice of the modern age.  That is why it is special even with established Christians.  It helped them resolve the voice of their church upbringing with the voice in the world that seems to have a morality that is different.  It has become popular for Christians to hand this book to their non-Christian friends to translate their faith.

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How in the wide wide world of sports do you translate that into a movie?  Not easily, apparently.  It’s been so difficult that Miller even wrote a book about the process, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  The movie has encountered a veritable cornucopia of difficulties in making it to the big screen and even now it is in the tenuous situation of having to be pretty big in the first weekend it opens or it will get pulled and no one will see it.  You could almost see the bead of sweat running down Miller’s slightly-forced smiling face ala Total Recall as he very nicely begged us to bring friends to see it again on its opening date of April 13th.  Ahh .. Blue Like Jazz 2: Blue Sky On Mars – sounds like a good sequel.  It could star Arnold as Don next time!  Sorry, I digress …

So, the review!

blue like jazz trailer

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Arnold, you're just in a dream. Why are you pulling out that dream gun?

The Review

Blue Like Jazz is a movie about a guy named Don Miller.  No, not that Don Miller, the author of the book fella.  Well, kind of about that guy, but not really.  In the after presser, Miller mumbled something quickly about “essential truth” and then basically said “Look!  A distraction!” and we were distracted as he knew we would be because, well, let’s face it, he wrote a book about our generation.  So, where were we?  Oh yes, it’s a story about a guy named Don Miller loosely based on the life of the author Don Miller and the experiences he wrote about in the book of the same name.

Don Miller, the movie one, has a typical Christian’s life as a young adult in modern Houston, TX.  He goes to church.  He helps with the teen group there.  He has a job.  His hangs out with friends.  He’s about to go off to Christian college.  All in all, he’s buying what the church is selling him.  It’s all going according to the typical American church goers plan until he finds out something horrible about his church that blows it all to crispy communion wafer sized bits.

Don has a conversation with his estranged non-Christian father who challenges Don’s objectivity.  He tells Don that Don is a Christian because he ignores the intelligent things that other people are saying.  He is bubble boy in his safe southern God-friendly community.  Besides that, God doesn’t resolve he says.  Look at the horrible mess of life, none of it means anything and if it did God would certainly be a poor planner.  Because of all this, he enrolled Don on a whim at Reed College in Oregon, the least Christian campus in America.  Don is so angry with his situation that he decides on the spur of the moment to leave his life behind in Houston and go to Reed.

At Reed, Don dabbles in the world exploring its charms and sexy carrots, and perhaps experiments with other attractive vegetables like sexy turnips and lurid rutabagas.  It’s one big sexy salad and Don is mowing down.  This is what creates the undercurrent of tension in the movie.  The tension is not necessarily whether Don believes in God or not, although you can tell that he is mulling that over.  The tension is whether Don can believe that God isn’t really a jerk and is actually worth following.  Can Don find where God is good in all of this mess?

Blue like Jazz is clearly a labor of love.  You can see it in every frame and every line of dialogue.  Director Steve Taylor’s shots are meticulously laid out with beautiful results.  He is a talent.  The backgrounds are filled with nuances and small, wonderful details, clearly placed with precision and forethought.  The cast is likeable and many performances are quite good.  There comes a point where you are entering somewhat new story territory and you don’t know what’s going to happen next.  That freshness is exhilarating at times.  All in all, from the production value, you will have a hard time believing it is a low budget film.  Miller confirmed in the after presser that many in the industry thought after watching the movie that its budget was twice what it was.

Here’s the thing with labors of love, though: love clouds your vision of shortcomings.  And Blue Like Jazz has them in quantities that hinder it from being any more than just an average film.  It is quite normal for pre-screenings to contain more content so film makers can focus group reaction to specific lines, but, still, the movie is bloated.  Scenes are too long.  There are many that are unnecessary and they ruin momentum.  In particular, Blue Like Jazz nearly gets drunk off of how good it is to be bad, showing scene after scene glorifying Don’s world dabbling.  It’s as if they are trying so hard to connect with your everyday person that they end up with overkill causing the viewer to get lost in the debauchery.  We see very little in the way of consequences for these actions.  As it is, the movie almost approaches the line unintentionally of delivering the message that you should try everything and when you find all that lacking true satisfaction, God will be there.  Even though many of the scenes are fresh and interesting, I had to ask myself “What is this movie about, again?” several times.

The main difficulty for this film is the way to communicate the unique message of the book in a format that doesn’t naturally support it.  In the book, Don tells the story of the title of Blue Like Jazz by saying that he used to hate jazz because it didn’t resolve.  However, as he got older, he realized that all of the soul soaring high notes and crushing low notes told a beautiful story all in itself.  The resolution of jazz isn’t earthly, it’s heavenly, and it only makes sense if you look at the whole, not at each individual note.  Because of this philosophy, Blue Like Jazz is filmed like jazz.  Sometimes it holds scenes like notes for surprisingly long times or goes to scenes that don’t seem to fit into its premise like an unexpected note played from a scale, all with the thought that real resolution is different than we think and only seen with heavenly perspective.  All in all it reminds me a little bit of Pascal’s construction of Pensees where he used the spherical 3-D logic of the heart to organize his book instead of the 2-D linear logic of the mind.  This is a fascinating idea but perhaps the American cinema isn’t exactly ready for it.  After all, there is validity for people going to this form of entertainment because they know what they are going to get.  This is not what they are expecting.  And even if the idea has artistic merit, it should be noted that jazz is improvisation inside structure.  There are still rules like musical scales, tempo, and keys.  In light of that, this movie far too often plays flat notes or simply holds a note for far too long, disrupting any momentum it has.  That the filmmakers love it like the tone deaf love of a parent listening to their child sing becomes apparent.  If the movie makers are listening – snip the apron strings and brutally cut 20-30 minutes.  Trust me, it’ll be better.Image

In the end, I recommend it.  I feel as if I have to give a rating.  How about 8 out of 12 original apostles for you Christians reading this (with some of the 8 being the one’s you never heard of) and a 2 out of 3 of Freud’s psychic apparatus for those of you who aren’t and don’t give a crap about my apostle rating scale.  The reason I recommend it is simple.  There is no movie out there quite like this.  I’m tired of seeing actors ape what writers think I think as a Christian.  For once I watched a movie where a Christian wasn’t a dillhole.  For once a Christian was portrayed not as someone who blindly accepts, but one who tests to see what is good.  And for once a Christian was portrayed not as someone who was browbeaten by the threat of hell into faith but a person who saw God and found him more beautiful than what the world has to offer.  It’s really nice, you know?  Miller said in the after presser that he often gets asked the message of the movie and he honestly just thinks of it as a story, a friend to those out there who question their faith on either side.  It’s nice to have a friend.

todd

Zoo Ministries is a community of young adults who have chosen to live out the life of Christ in their greater community.  We focus on the practical aspects of what it means to be devoted to one another in Christ while living in a world that more and more feeds self absorption.  The focus of our community is to share the love of Christ with each other and with the world around us.  This blog updates and explains this ministry as well as being a spot to share thoughts, generally on spirituality, about the events of the day.  We hope it provides something good for you!

Here is our house motto:

“We are a community of Christ-followers who believe in living a life of love. That loves drives us to comfort the hurting, serve the needy, befriend the lonely, accept the rejected, and challenge the status quo. We understand that love is risky, and we are compelled by Christ to take that risk. If people needs a place to belong, they can belong with us.”

We currently function partly of donations (we have a 2 year plan to cut the need for donations down significantly and, actually, be able to start funding other things).  If you want to contribute financially to help this develop, go to http://goo.gl/3WC6k  or send check payable to East Main Church of Christ with my name in the memo line to East Main Church of Christ 2528 East Main St. Kalamazoo, MI 49048 .  If you don’t care about tax write offs you can send it to me at Todd Tipton 5727 West Q Avenue Kalamazoo, MI 49009.  We are always looking for roommates and helpers so contact us if you want to move here and be a part of this!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Cody Balch permalink
    March 27, 2012 9:03 pm

    Todd,

    Although I have never seen the movie (but I have read the book), that was a great review. It was interesting hearing your thoughts and perspective on the movie version of “Blue Like Jazz”. Hopefully they will take your advice;)

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