A movie based on a popular memoir that doesn’t read like a movie? Why, yes, if you have the mind of Steve Taylor, Director.
Honestly, I’ve never read the book by Don Miller. I heard that it touched millions of eager readers. I was too busy traipsing through Miller’s other book which prominently featured a VW Microbus. Now, that’ll get my attention.
No offense to Don, but I’m really interested in Steve. Becky and I viewed their film at a Premiere last week at Eastern University. It’s a solid film, one I am proud of, considering Steve Taylor has been one of my heroes since the days of his jestering as a New Wave rocker in the mid-80′s.
During a photo opp beside their Blue Like Jazz promotional box truck, I met Steve as he was handing out Twizzlers to the crowd. Of course! I thanked him for his work and handed him a worn copy of The Wittenburg Door, a satire magazine which featured him on the cover. He signed it in Sharpie right next to his image bearing his signature lankiness and squinty smile.
Back to the film: Super well shot by Director of Photography and long-time collaborator of Steve’s, Ben Pearson. Look, a film HAS to lookgreat no matter the story, the dialogue or the acting. Christians working in this art rarely get this right. Steve and Ben nail it.
Being set on the campus of Reed College in Portland, they had a lot of visuals to play with: A condom-distributing Pope pushing a grocery cart and a wild rave on the quad, just to name two. But more than that, the dialogue is mature, cogent and hilarious. It’s funny as in Napoleon Dynamite funny.
It’s basically the story of a fundamentalist Texan who gets pissed off at the goofiness and hypocrisy he encounters in the name of Christianity and then heads of to Secular University. There, among Lesbians and Malaysian Cocktail-sipping tennis players, he runs as far from God as possible.
The film, according to Steve Taylor in his introduction to the audience, “earned its PG-13 rating.” What he said next was even better. I’m quoting loosely here:
We decided to take a biblical approach to our story telling. For that reason, the film is not really family-friendly. If you’ve read the Bible lately, you’ll know what we mean by that.
I will promote this film and ask each of you to get out to see it on the weekend of 4/13. If you do, and it sells out, there’s a chance it’ll stay in the theaters longer and make it to smaller markets like Lancaster.
Though made by Christians, Blue Like Jazz stands on its own merits as a film, not as a propaganda piece for evangelicalism. What a relief!
I have to say, however, that I fear the film has a fundamental weakness, with all due respect to Taylor, his crew and his backers: Only a sliver of the American public will relate to its worldview. The creators are counting on the readers of the book to be the core responders who will bring their friends. They’ll succeed at that, but the broader American audience is less apt to identify with a damaged Baptist from Texas.
It’s certainly not my story. I left for college as an unchurched, moral, North Eastern, shallow hedonist and was blindsided by Christ a month later.
At it’s core BLZ is still a movie about someone’s relationship to God. Skillfully done with imagination and integrity, yes, but about spirituality in the full frontal sense. The sub-plots are artfully done, but they play in the background: Don’s relationship with Penny, his loss of integrity, and his whacko youth pastor who shags his Mom. Unfortunately, these are the very narratives most emerging adults will relate to the most.
Taylor’s previous film, Second Chance, suffered from the same weakness: An overtly Christian story about a prosperity preacher (played by Michael W. Smith) and his fall from grace. Did that film strike a nerve with many outside the Christian bubble? Probably not.
With Blue Like Jazz, Steve Taylor delivers a great piece of popular art. He’s getting closer to a more subversive, and perhaps more explosive, telling of the Christian story. Hopefully, he’ll earn enough bread to springboard further into the mainstream of movie-making where that story is welcome, if done artfully. He can do it. Let’s cheer him on.