FAITH OUTSIDE THE BOUNDARIES: Marshall Allman and Claire Holt bring Donald Miller's bestselling book to life in 'Blue Like Jazz.' (Image: Roadside Attractions)
“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.
MEN BEHIND THE STORY: Director Steve Taylor (from left), author Donald Miller, and star Marshall Allman during one of several tour stops this spring to screen 'Blue Like Jazz' for preview audiences.
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.
While working on the screenplay for the film version of his bestselling book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller decided to live his life like a good movie. The results were dramatic. (Photo: Jeremy Cowart Photography.)
I used to imagine a camera crew was following me around, secretly recording every bit of my life like The Truman Show. The crew would follow me to the Laundromat and record for hours as I separated the whites from the coloreds. Sometimes viewers at home would watch me reorganize my bookshelf or agonize over what kind of food to order for dinner on a Saturday night. Chinese or Italian … Chinese or Italian…? It was a pretty boring television show. When you think about it, real life is never as exciting as a movie.
But what if our lives were more like a good film, full of drama, action, romance and victory? What if we lived like we were lead characters in the midst of a compelling plotline, as opposed to bumbling through life in a series of random experiences? We might just find that the elements that make up a good story are the same elements that make for a good life.
When Donald Miller set out to edit his own life for a film based on his bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz, he realized that by applying the principles of filmmaking he could actually cast himself as the lead in a more meaningful life. In his latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, the popular author takes his personal journey out of what seemed to be a meaningless narrative and transforms it into a new story fit for the big screen.
We recently spoke with Donald Miller about his new book, the new narrative that’s shaping his life, and the status of the Jazz film his fans have been waiting years to see.
URBAN FAITH: In A Million Miles, you say that the elements of a good story are the same as those that make up a good life. What are the qualities of a good story?
DONALD MILLER: A good story is a character who wants something and is willing to overcome conflict to get it. But those are all conditional, so the kind of person that we are matters, and what we want in life actually matters. For instance, if our goals are to pay off the house (which I have nothing against — that’s a great goal) but that’s the whole of our story — all of our conflict and all of our work is about paying off the house — then we shouldn’t expect to feel any more meaning in our lives than if we were to watch a movie about a guy who worked really hard to pay off his house. We’re not going to be crying at the end of that film. It has to be about something more than that.
Now that you’ve discovered a more compelling narrative for your life, has the story of you as a writer come to an end?
The story of becoming a successful writer is a story that a lot of people are living. And once I had done that, I didn’t have a story anymore. If you don’t have a story to live within, life feels meaningless. That happened to me, so I had to figure out what was my next story and it involved The Mentoring Project and providing mentors for kids growing up without fathers. I’m still a writer of course — I will always write books. But I needed something more, and that was my something more.
Christians often feel plagued by the sense that we might not be living the life God has in mind for us. How do you know you’ve chosen the right story to live?
I don’t know that there is a right story. I think there are good stories and many that honestly are subjective. What you say is a good story might not be something I think is a good story. But I think what we’re getting into is as Christians, we feel like there is this thing that God wants me to do. And that may be true for some people, but I don’t think that’s true for all of us. When I pray, “God do you think I should do this?” often I think God is saying, “Well, what do you want to do?” And we would say, no, no, no. God is absolute; it’s black and white; it’s a mathematical system — you read the Bible and you figure this out.
But that’s not the way parents work. That’s sort of taking the life out of God and saying that God is not a being, He’s a computer. I don’t believe that. I think God interacts with us the way a father would interact with a child. In the sense that sometimes it would be a good story and sometimes it wouldn’t. But really God is saying what do you want and then we say what we want and He says well that’s not very wise, but I understand why you want it.
Wow. If that’s true, that is incredibly freeing.
Well, yeah! I think God just says, “What do you want?” And we say, “Well, I want this.” And He says, “Well, no you can’t have that. That’s sin. What else do you want?” And we say, “I want this.” And God says, “Well you know that’s not the best option but why don’t you go for it and figure some things out here.” And that’s exactly how we raise our kids. Why wouldn’t God be doing that with us if He has called Himself our Father?
You mentioned sin. What are some other things that keep us from living a more compelling story?
Fear. Characters do not like to change. They have to be forced to change. Something has to happen to propel them into changing. In story structure, we create something called an inciting incident — it’s something that happens from which the character can never go backward; they can only go forward. The reason we don’t want to change is because of fear. Even if we’re living in a terrible situation, at least we have control over that situation. I know what’s going on in my life, and if I try to do something different it may change and may get worse. So we stay in our terrible situation. In order to live a great story, we have to face our fears.
Throughout your career you’ve openly shared your pain from growing up without a father. Now that you’re embarking on a new story about mentoring young boys, what kinds of fears have you had to face?
I was afraid to mentor a kid. [Laughs.] I was afraid I’d mess this kid’s life up or I wouldn’t be there for something. Of course in the first three minutes of meeting this kid that I mentor, that was all gone out the window. When we were on the way to a baseball game and he asked me how fast my car went. And I just sank the pedal into the floor to show him and that was it–we bonded. We were buddies after that. But before that it was just a lot of fear. Guys don’t like being called into relational stuff. Of course, we love it once we’re in it. So the men and women who live amazing stories just walk into their fear and they make things happen.
We are resourcing and equipping the church to start mentoring programs within their own walls. The mentoring program actually belongs to the church, but we inspire them, we equip them, we train them, we give them materials that they need. We interact with a key leader in that church and we monitor the success of the program. We have seven programs in Portland. We have about 200 that are waiting to start our program. We’re mentoring 100 kids here, and we think we can mentor about 5,000 in a short period of time and then grow from there.
I see that the infrastructure of the church is already there. The manpower is there to mentor an entire generation of Americans. We could literally shut down a significant percentage of our prisons if the church did this. We could turn back the abortion rate. We could turn back the divorce rate. You know there is so much that could be done if we invest relationally in fatherless boys — not because they are more important than girls, but because boys are the ones who are going to cause trouble. Ninety-four percent of the people in prison are men.
But what’s amazing are the values of the church — the pro-family values of the church, the pro-ethics, pro-morality values. They could all be met with this vision. But it’s a hard vision because it calls us into relational exchanges. It calls us into sacrifice. But if you just grumble and complain about the government or our problems, it’s such a much easier way to focus your energy than to actually get off your butt and do anything. But we believe the church has it in them to actually get off their butts and do something, so we’re challenging the church to mentor the next generation of fatherless boys.
What’s the latest on the Blue Like Jazz film?
We’re probably 50 percent there in terms of having the money we need before we can shoot the film, and they’re actually saying we might have it by the end of the [summer]. But at the same time, that puts us on a weird schedule because we needed to shoot in the summer because we want to shoot on location at a college and obviously colleges have people in them. We wanted to shoot it here at Reed College. That may still happen but it may have to wait until next year. But the script is done. It’s a very fun movie, and I’m looking forward to having it out there.
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