Blu-ray Review: ‘Blue Like Jazz’ Attempts to Reinvigorate Christian Filmmaking

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CHICAGO – There’s a reason why the terms “Christian” and “filmmaker” don’t seem to go together. Pictures that push religious agendas tend to sacrifice complex plots and characters in favor of amplifying its message. These films fail not only as entertainment but as quality storytelling. Whenever an aspiring artist attempts to speak for a group rather than oneself, it’s almost always a recipe for tediously preachy dreck.

The mediocre output from studios such as Affirm Films and the mercifully scrapped Fox Faith soured many filmgoers on modern Christian entertainment by displaying an utter lack of interest in artistic integrity. Many doubting Christians found their frustrations mirrored in the 2003 book, “Blue Like Jazz,” a collection of essays written by Donald Miller, who reflected on his evolving faith while auditing courses at Portland’s liberal arts school, Reed College. Director Steve Taylor’s film version of the book functions as a rebuke to all the pictures that have given so-called Christian films a bad name. Blu-ray Rating: 3.5/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 3.5/5.0

The script (co-written by Miller) constructs a coming-of-age tale centering on a 19-year-old version of the author. Marshall Allman, an actor perhaps best known for doffing his clothes on “True Blood,” plays Donald as a devoted churchgoer whose sudden disillusionment (spurred by a less-than-godly youth minister) inspires him to break free of his Bible Belt community. He begins taking classes at Reed College, and is immediately branded as an outsider by his peers. With a haircut and goofy smile evocative of Steve Carell in “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” Donald certainly resembles a fish out of water, but is neither made a target of ridicule nor a two-dimensional role model. There are several scenes where he comes across as a jerk while straining to fit in. It’s occasionally unclear whether the opinions he voices are actually his own or whether he’s just utilizing them to win friends, not to mention the affections of pretty blonde Penny (Claire Holt). Yet it’s the confusion and uncertainty that Donald harbors about his own beliefs that makes his character so relatable, and his plight so engaging. From moment to moment, I was unsure about where Donald’s tale would lead next and what the ultimate lesson to his tale would be. With the possible exception of that smarmy youth minister, there isn’t a single person that the film portrays as a cardboard villain. No character is without fault or without value, and the film’s good-natured tone is infectious.

Blue Like Jazz was released on Blu-ray on August 7, 2012.
Blue Like Jazz was released on Blu-ray on August 7, 2012.
Photo credit: Lionsgate Home Entertainment

That being said, there are several instances where a character’s erratic behavior seems motivated more by screenplay contrivances than anything else. Penny seems a tad too understanding after Donald disrupts her church service in a bout of irrational rage. The inner-revelation that Donald has in the film’s final act also feels more tacked-on than organic. What ultimately makes the film work are the numerous moments that ring true. Instead of ignoring the severe crimes and hypocrisies that have made many people turn their backs on the church, Miller dares to face them in a final scene of emotionally potent catharsis. “Blue Like Jazz” reminds viewers that faith is an intangible entity that comes from within rather than from an organized religion or a standard place of worship. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson have demonstrated (for better or worse) that the most enduring artistic works of spiritual expression are the most personal. In its own gentle way, Taylor’s film demonstrates how truth can never be realized unless one is true to oneself. It’s the sort of message that people of any faith could easily get behind.

The film is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English and Spanish subtitles, and includes a wide array of extras, though many are disappointingly glib. Taylor, Miller and cinematographer/co-writer Ben Pearson’s audio commentary track is a particular letdown, since the laugh-prone trio fails to seriously explore the film’s multitude of ideas regarding a faith-based life. They do, however, point out the various details lifted directly from Reed College, such as the cafeteria’s “Scrounge counter” and “Coming Out Wall.” Many of the extras are self-parodying and seem determined to test the patience of viewers, though the assemblage of pointless “deleted shots” is admittedly amusing.

In an all-too-brief making-of featurette, Taylor argues that the film wouldn’t have been as interesting if it didn’t juxtapose the extreme environments of the Bible Belt and a “godless” liberal college. Miller makes no secret of the fact that he shares his autobiographical character’s frustration at the church, though he never specifies what he’s frustrated about. He says that it’s his goal to change the “Christian business model” by encouraging fellow church members to “no longer be salesmen but instead be truth tellers.” This is a powerful statement, though its power is dulled by a PSA-type video where fans repeat the same line while attempting to prove that Miller’s book represents a larger movement within the church. Yet the popularity of “Blue Like Jazz” remains undeniable. The film’s Kickstarter campaign raised $125,000 within a mere ten days. This isn’t a great film, by any means, but it certainly is a step in the right direction for Christian filmmakers aiming to reach a wider audience. Kirk Cameron, eat your heart out.

‘Blue Like Jazz’ is released by Lionsgate Home Entertainment and stars Marshall Allman, Claire Holt, Justin Welborn, Tania Raymonde, Eric Lange, Jason Marsden, Will McKinney and Jenny Littleton. It was written by Donald Miller, Ben Pearson and Steve Taylor and directed by Steve Taylor. It was released on August 7, 2012. It is rated PG-13. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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