In a sense I was predestined to see this movie. Donald Miller the author of Blue Like Jazz (BLJ) is my favorite author to read – though oddly BLJ is not my favorite of his books, that honor would most likely go to To Own a Dragon or maybe if you catch me on the right day Through Painted Deserts. Steve Taylor, the director, is to this day, in my opinion, the best lyricist contemporary Christian music has ever seen. His singing is a little rough around the edges but that’s overshadowed by his lyrics. It wouldn’t be a large leap to say that much of who I have become as a Christian is directly related to contemplating his lyrics. When I heard that BLJ was being made into a movie I was excited, when I heard that it was Steve Taylor directing it I was over the moon. So, to say I was destined to see this movie is something of an understatement.
The biggest problem this movie has is its title. It’s not that Blue Like Jazz is a bad title, it’s just that it’s the title of a very particular book and this film is not that book. It would be better if it took another title and added “inspired by Blue Like Jazz” or “loosely based upon Blue Like Jazz” or, what I think it should be “a film in the spirit of Blue Like Jazz“. The problem is that a lot of people are going to come to see this film expecting to see the book on screen and they’re not going to get it, which will in turn cause a disillusionment with the film. The film is pretty good; I’d give it a B or B-. I hope people don’t miss the quality of the film as they’re not seeing BLJ – the book – on the screen.
The thing I missed from the book were several of the characters who I really wanted to meet. Rick, the pastor who swears, Tony the Beat Poet, Andrew the Protester. I also really wanted to meet John McMurray, but that’s probably because I’ve read To Own a Dragon too many times. We do meet Penny, though this isn’t really the Penny we know and love from the book. Don and his family are different as well. These are things that bug me about the movie, because I love the book.
The second biggest problem of the movie is that the book isn’t really a narrative. To me it’s more of a collection of essays that sort of weave their way through Don’s life. To make a narrative out of it would mean some serious editing, which is why all those things I miss in the previous paragraph are not in the film. I think as a result they came up a good story, in the spirit of the book.
In the film Don comes from a part of Texas where everyone is Christian and likely Baptist. He’s surrounded by Christianity with the exception of his father who is a jazz loving, free thinking, ‘homeless’ man who apparently sleeps with his interns. When his mother does the unthinkable – to him – his faith is crushed and he runs away to Reed College in Portland, Oregon where his father has conveniently already enrolled him. For those unfamiliar with Reed, it’s a college full of really smart kids and a bastion of hedonism – that is to say anything (literally anything) goes. I was talking with a friend last night who applied to Reed and did a campus visit who assured me that in the film they capture the essence of Reed quite accurately.
This collision of hedonistic living and his fundamentalist upbringing causes havoc in Don’s life that results in him asking big questions that he wouldn’t have asked in Texas. And the story goes from there.
I think the biggest strength of the film is that it caused me to reflect on my spiritual journey. Don comes to many conclusions that would not have been possible without Reed and his family’s influence. In the same way I have to think about who I would be if I had stayed in Maine with my fundamentalist (in a good way) Pentecostal church. There are so many particularities that make us who we are and bring us to where we’re going that it’s hard to name them all. I think the film does a good job of highlighting a few of them for Don. The problem is that it really only highlights them and never fills them out. Nonetheless, they do the job and make for a touching and thoughtful film.
I’m biased, because I love the book and the author and the director, so take this with a grain of salt. Despite its shortcomings, I will own this movie because it reminds me of my spiritual journey and ultimately reminds me that nobody’s spiritual journey is as clean as we’d like it to be. It reminds me that it’s OK that it takes a while for people to come to Christ and that things can be really crappy along the way – both coming to Christ and living with Him. And, most importantly, it reminds me that loving people is not contingent on them being Christian.