“Jazz is the mother, and hip-hop’s the child / She died and revived, now her child’s running wild.” – Grits, “Jazz,” Mental Releases, 1994
The highly anticipated film adaptation of Donald Miller’s bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz, which opens this weekend, accomplishes something rare and beautiful: it depicts an authentic faith journey in a bohemian, urban setting. Though the titular music is mentioned only a few times in passing — over the plaintive wails of vintage Coltrane — the movie pulses with many aspects of great jazz. It is alternately exuberant and melancholy, messy and chaotic but with a coalescing sense of order and progression.
Directed by former CCM artist and producer Steve Taylor (who also directed 2006’s The Second Chance starring Michael W. Smith) and starring Marshall Allman (HBO’s True Blood), Blue Like Jazz is a fictionalized account of Donald Miller’s crisis of belief at liberal Reed College, a stark contrast to his Baptist Texan upbringing.
Plenty of keystrokes have been expended dealing with the question of whether or not this is a Christian movie. In my book, motion pictures can be no more Christian than model trains or milkshakes, which are all products born of long, collaborative processes. What people really mean when they ask that question is, “Does this film espouse a Christian worldview?”
The answer there is a firm, “yes, but.” Yes, but not an exclusively conservative evangelical worldview. Yes, but only if your definition of a Christian includes those who struggle and doubt and make horrendous mistakes and occasionally [SPOILER ALERT] deface buildings with giant condoms. (Did I mention this is a PG-13 film?)
Marshall Allman plays the fictional Don Miller as an everyman-turned-iconoclast, who fled to Reed as an act of rebellion amidst personal turmoil in his personal life and at his fundamentalist Baptist church. Eventually, he ends up rebelling against the rebellion, slowly finding his way back to a place of forgiveness and reconnection after spending a school year “lost in a sea of individuality.” Viewing his journey, then, is a little bit like an ad hoc whitewater baptism. It’s full of confused, frightened thrashing about, but after it’s over, you walk away with a deep sense of peace and meaning.
Dramatizing a primarily internal conflict, a challenging task in any film, requires getting the details right. And as Don says in the film, if you’re going to have an existential crisis, you can’t do much better than winter in Portland. Despite its paucity of ethnic diversity, the city of Portland, home to Reed College and plenty of native weirdness, plays a significant support role, with many iconic Portland locales represented onscreen.
And though most of the screen time is carried by Allman’s Don alongside new friends Penny (Claire Holt), Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), and an enigmatic character known only as The Pope (played to the hilt by Justin Welborn), Don’s journey is encapsulated by an active disdain for his parents and an effort to run from the faith of his past.
Thus, the main source of the film’s God-centered outlook comes from the seemingly incomprehensible way that the people and events that comprise Don’s first year at Reed somehow lead him back to faith, rather than pushing him further away. Somehow, despite the copious amounts of alcohol, philosophical debates, activist stunts, and gender identity politics, Don begins to see with clarity who he really is, and in contrast, who God has been the whole time.
There’s something wonderfully symmetrical about a film that depicts a rediscovery of God among the godless being named after an art form initially rejected as vulgar and inferior. That sense of poetic justice is amplified further when you consider that the trio of producer Steve Taylor, cowriter and cinematographer Ben Pearson, and Don Miller himself, had given up on the project after four years of fundraising futility. They were only able to move forward after two fans emailed them with the idea of a crowdsourced Kickstarter campaign — one that eventually shattered all the previous fundraising records for films and turned thousands of financial supporters into de facto associate producers. So after witnessing the creative journey from memoir to screenplay to the big screen, Blue seems very much like, pardon the expression, a God thing.
Which is good, because this film is a significant departure from standard faith-based fare that takes more of an obvious approach to faith. It’s obvious that the film, like the book that spawned it, was intended to help spark honest conversations between members of competing faith communities, including those who have no faith at all. In this sense, Blue Like Jazz is clearly a bridge-building film, and it could very well serve as a notice to the rest of Hollywood that it’s possible to do faith-based filmmaking that is both spiritually honest and commercially viable. For that reason alone, people need to go out and see Blue Like Jazz as soon as possible.
My only remaining hope is that, if this film reaches a modicum of commercial success, the principal creators turn their attention to another intractable problem in need of cultural bridge-building — the racial divide in America. If that seems like too tall an order, they should take it as a compliment. I have plenty of faith in God expressing Himself through the talents of Donald Miller and Steve Taylor.
They just won’t be able to set it in Portland, because, well, there just aren’t enough Black people here.