Blue Like Jazz: A Movie Review

By Eugene C. Scott

I wouldn’t voluntarily see a “Christian movie.” It’s not that they are cheesy. That’s a cheap shot. I’ve seen my share of cheesy “non-Christian movies.” Rather, it’s that movies produced by the Christian faith community, which supposedly portray faith, and might produce faith, seldom exhibit faith in God’s ability to communicate through a story well told. This usually makes them lousy stories. And it’s ironic because Jesus fearlessly told stories: one comparing God to an unjust judge.

Today’s Christian movie industry would never do such a thing for fear that some poor sap like me might misunderstand the point. Therefore, Christian movies seldom tell authentic, compelling stories because they are overly concerned with not offending popular Christian orthodoxy, with getting Truth right, and with ensuring that the movie gets people to heaven. For an example of this, read here  for a discussion of whether the character “Penny” from “Blue Like Jazz” is Christian enough.

But I wanted to see “Blue Like Jazz” because I read the book several years ago, and found it refreshing, not your typical pastor-of-mega-church-preaches-sermon-and-turns-it-into-a-book book. Donald Miller is an excellent writer: poetic, funny, serious, irreverent, and honest in his prose. Miller trusted me to get the point instead of impaling me with it. I hoped the movie would follow suit. Plus Christianity Today said, it’s hardly Christian cinema as usual.

So, though I had trouble imagining Miller’s series of “nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality” being turned into a complete story, I donned my disguise and trooped off to see “Blue Like Jazz” (I always wear a disguise when going to Christian movies or book stores in case someone recognizes me.  Just kidding, sort of).

Eugene heading for his local Christian bookstore

The movie is the story of a fictional 19 year-old Donald Miller, who begins to feel his Bible-belt is cinched a bit too tight. “Don,” played dryly but authentically by Marshall Allman, has been accepted into a Christian college. The scene depicting his “graduation” at church is as intentionally uncomfortable as any I’ve sat through. Exaggerated but too close to home. Unknown to Don, his estranged–and strange–jazz-loving father enrolls him in uber-liberal Reed College in Portland. He rejects the idea as crazy until his mother inadvertently jerks his magic-carpet faith completely out from under him.

The rest of the film shows Don struggling to figure out who he now is, if he is not some caraciture of a flannel-board Christ. Don’s struggle is real and funny. I have not traveled Don’s path, but I did during the movie and I wanted his conflict and disappointment and loneliness to shape him into the person I read about in the book.

The writing is sharp, bouncing from Seinfeld-like irony to true soul searching. The scene where Don is sitting on a bench, alone, writing in his journal was powerful story-telling. More-so, when a friend from Houston unexpectedly shows up at Reed over Christmas break.

Director Steve Taylor filled Miller’s college life with quirky, troubled, and extremely intelligent fellow travelers. The movie claims the average IQ score at Reed College is a couple above genius. I have to admit, for several reasons, I may not have survived at Reed. It looked to me like flypaper for the world’s wildest and weirdest. But Reed made for a perfect setting for Miller’s journey.

Blue Like Jazz was not “Christian” nor cheesy. I enjoyed it. I laughed, cringed, hoped, and was lost in the characters and the story most of the time.

A couple of exceptions:

The animated car scene where Don drives from Texas to Portland is silly, even cheesy (but not “Christian cheesy”). I found myself taken out of the story then and it took me a few minutes to dive back in. I wish Taylor had spent that valuable screen time letting Allman develop Miller more deeply.

Too bad Taylor didn’t have more money so the cinematography and technical aspects would match the writing and over-all story. Even then it is well done on all levels.

Also, despite Taylor’s success in letting the story speak for itself, there were a couple of scenes that seemed built to communicate information rather than show Don’s struggle. But this was not often.

Over-all, however, “Blue Like Jazz” is a well-told, thoughtful, provocative story about a young man digging below his facade of safe, American consumer-driven religion to see if there is a real, living, breathing God buried there. That story is one, according to sociologist Christian Smith, many in fictional Donald Miller’s age group are living.

It’s a movie to be enjoyed and discussed. What did you think?

Eugene C. Scott is co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church. He tried to sound a lot like an official movie critic in this review because he grew up reading the reviews in TV Guide and it’s always been a dream of his to become a crusty media critic. Besides after ranting about Christian movies and book stores, he might need a back-up career.


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6 responses to “Blue Like Jazz: A Movie Review

  1. JPMoyer MD

    Ordered the audio version from JeffCo library system. My wife and I can listen together. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Georgie-ann

    Being a teen & young adult in the 60s — finding one’s “way” in the world to being/becoming “a whole person” integrally connected to “cosmic meaning in the universe” while also having one’s feet “solidly on the ground” — was an exciting challenge in a disturbing time. But I didn’t really enjoy it — there was a whole lot of angst and subliminal negativity, and identity stressers that pulled one in many directions, hinting all the while that truly “chaos rules” so don’t bother “looking for the existential gold” because “it doesn’t exist.” Simple as that. Boom. Yeah,… So just “be cool,”… come “jazz it up” with “very cool us” on a perpetual basis, in some dingy little off-beat dive, while you’ve got all this empty ol’ time on your empty and bored ol’ hands,… “life” really doesn’t mean anything,… like,… yeah,… (Btw,… Lies. Lies. All lies! I must say — and I’m happy to say — in retrospect.) A suggestive “druggie culture” had emerged certainly to tempt/seduce the “lost and vulnerable”, but had an obvious “down and out”/whack-o/marginalized vibe that could help the “healthier” individual resist its incessant demands, claims and attempted pulls.

    Thank goodness for the simplicity of the “Back to Nature” movements and their indisputably “grounded” focus(!) that were “big” at the time as well. I pulled a lot of weeds, and hoed a lot of clay dirt, and am none the worse for any of it,… In fact, it was “the best of the best” as I “got myself connected” (inside and out) to valuable and eternal meaning in many soul-integrating ways. In this context, it is so much easier to see and experience the value and relevance of Biblical wisdom to our lives, “from the ground up” as they say. God is easier to “find” and “touch” and “see”, manifesting His universal order and transcendent power in continually bringing forth the miracles of life and growth, and in the complementing value and importance of a solid and practical perspective pertaining to work and behavior and life attitudes that will prosper and benefit us all. A cosmic “vision” that unites and integrates the beautiful dignity and essence of “man created in God’s image” (inwardly and outwardly), with the majestic nature of the universe itself, is truly ours in Christ. How to communicate the full essence of this special gift to us, through Christ’s sacrifice and redemption of us, effectively to a “lost and dying world” — although always a “heart cry” — has never ever been an easy matter.

    By comparison, our current and mostly superficial cultural offerings seem to have created abundant scenarios that portray us all as just living out some sort of ongoing light-hearted cultural “joke.” (Is “joke” the “new” context to accommodate and whitewash what is fundamentally “sin”/ “missing the mark”? — we’re not sinning, we’re just all a little “odd”?) Are we humans and our lives really basically just some flimsy and accidental “joke”? (I DO know some alcoholics who seem to think so!) The contrived contexts that we are portrayed to be “existing” in (as in films, etc.) are derived simulations and inventions, essentially dry and devoid of true substance, idealized, disconnected and random, often designed by people with no godly motivation,… or even the opposite. But we have “learned” through them, to become cooperating “idealized (paper doll) actors” in one parody after another — in one system/context or another — many based on assuming these human roles repeated in various sub-plots of the entertainment/distraction industry’s making, whose only real goal is to “keep human attention mesmerized.”

    “Canned” audience applause has apparently worked out so well, that now our whole lives are being “creatively” designed, dramatically preplanned, portrayed and “canned” — socially mapped, predicted, depicted, and played out for us to view “potentially” ahead of time — and then “sold to us (in more ways than one!)” as examples, for our convenient, suggestive, and perpetual voyeuristic consumer consumption,… and quite naturally, subsequent “imitation” of it, in one way or another.

    It’s certainly “what works” for staging films, but do we still own/have/possess our own personal integral lives (and selves) to live, with our own unique authenticity, and that are generating our own real and important significant stories with content quality that not only fills us with satisfaction, but would make God proud? Are we able to make the effective “leap” from one overly-stylized and fantasized category to the other real and substantial one? Or has “art-imitating-life” morphed more and more into “life-imitating-art” with an increasingly tailspinning effect that has blurred all significant considerations?,… a strange repeating cycle where the default level is often just mediocre at best,… not to mention “how low it can go,”…

    I can only deeply hope that there really are important “messengers” and “messages” coming into this scene, that can touch and reach and positively effect a level of awareness that will challenge this bizarre, effete “status quo” we are establishing, that too often enshrines the degradation of humankind as humorous and/or a “non-issue”,… We need to desire a strong transition and hunger for more true substance,…

    Old self-defeating human and ungodly paradigms — (just like old gas-guzzling engines, needing much more revamping than a simple “tune up” could ever do) — need to “see” the “writing on the wall:” It’s the “end of the line” for the ways that do not and will not work,… for the ways that undermine godly and human dignity,…

    If “the world” continues to self-promote its own folly,… if it remains stubbornly “blind and deaf” to the negative effects of the path it is on,… then it is up to each individual to ascertain for him/herself which path to choose: (1) default: follow the “ways of the world” (and iniquity), or (2) “man up” (or “woman up” or “child up”), and make the significant personal decisions that will align oneself with a counter-cultural, god-respecting, unique and substantial vision for establishing quality, personal self-respect and inner strength,… independent of the surroundings,…

    You can’t have it both ways,… and the way out IS “up,”… taking the “high road” (not drugs),… seeking clarity and steadfastness,… doing nothing (simply and quietly “resisting” the negative flow), when doing “something” would be detrimental,… After “securing our position in God,” we can expect greater opportunities to unfold,… In this way, our future “depends completely on us, as we yield ourselves to cooperate with God,”… Yes, it does take courage, but this builds up, as we use the strength made available to us,…

    The first step is the Decision and the Vision,… The follow through is “one foot in front of the other, with eyes on God,”… The “future” is realized, as we walk purposefully before God in this manner,… In this way only is He really able to “give us his best,”…

    Ephesians 5:14-16 [Walk in Wisdom]

    14 “Therefore He says:

    ‘Awake, you who sleep,
    Arise from the dead,
    And Christ will give you light.’

    15 “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, 16 redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

    God awaits His Harvest,… are we serious about “being there?”

  3. Georgie-ann

    edit: considerations and distinctions

    • Georgie-ann: You are one of God’s best pieces of art. Thanks.

      • Georgie-ann

        You’re pretty funny!

      • Georgie-ann

        … but, thanks, Oogene,… coming from you, I do appreciate that compliment!,… I feel more like a surviving battered and bruised specimen of humanity, that was blessed enough to get helped by God, and simply wants to “give back” & give God credit for all the things He CAN do,… which without Him we are never able to do on our own,… g paraphrase: “whoever is forgiven of much, and is healed of much, LOVES much!” (Luke 7:47)

        so,… maybe it’s more like being one of those patched-up, one-of-a-kind, “special finds” in a remote out-of-the-way “antique shop!”

        Btw,… the (chilling) “Writing on the Wall” reference and story are found in Daniel 5.

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