Blue Like Jazz (2012)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -1; L -5; S/N -2 . Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in
this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son
of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the g
lory of his Father with the holy angels.’
Mark 8:38

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Romans 1:16

He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Matthew 22:37

Don and Penny share a light moment on a giant web..

© 2012 A Roadside Attractions

Director Steve Taylor’s film, based on the collection of essays and memoir by Don Miller that was on the New York Times’ bestseller list, raises the bar for faith-based films—and also has stirred up controversy among believers and nonbelievers. This latter is a good thing for the film in that it might lead more people to go see it for themselves. As I watched it recently via a Live Streaming screening set up for film critics and reviewers, I found my initial skepticism concerning faith-based films, and this one in particular, melting away due to the well crafted script (by Taylor, Ben Pearson, joined by Don Miller himself) and excellent performances by the actors.

I haven’t read the book, but according to those who have, the story is a very fictionalized account of Don Miller’s spiritual journey from a closed belief system to skeptic denial and back to a spiritual belief that is open and affirming. Don (Marshall Allmanan) is a 19 year-old Texan enrolled in a Baptist junior college and active as an assistant leader in the junior high fellowship of his Southern Baptist Church. When a case of blatant hypocrisy involves his divorced mother (Jenny Littleton), he accepts his free thinking father’s proposition to enroll at ultra-liberal Reed College in Portland Oregon. The skeptic had been working on his son, telling him in one scene that the boy was smart, “A brain like that shouldn’t be wasted at church.” Climbing into his beat up old car, the young man seeks to escape from both his family and his church. On his first day at Reed Don is the proverbial fish out of water. He is shocked that girls freely use the men’s bathroom, drinking and swearing are rampant, bulletin board posters advocate causes anathema to his church back home, the professors encourage students to question everything, and lesbian student Lauryn (Tania Raymonde) warns him that if he is a Christian, he better stay in the closet.

Don soon finds that he has little faith to keep under wraps, the young man being swept along by the confident skepticism of his peers who love to mock the faith and declare their freedom from the old ways. The stand out of the latter is the student known only as the Pope (Justin Welborn), who almost always wears a robe and pontifical hat while spouting anti-Christian declarations. Needless to say, this is a character whom Catholic viewers will have trouble relating to—until perhaps the greatly moving climatic scene of the film. Don himself becomes a campus celebrity after he and some other students are arrested for defacing a billboard advertising bottled water that the student body holds in contempt because the same water is available free at the faucet.

During this middle period of the story when he has rejected his old faith Don’s spirit seems to be sustained by the love for jazz inherited from his father and fed by his listening to John Coltrane’s albums. The boy has embraced his father’s statement that “Jazz is like life because it doesn’t resolve.” Don himself refuses to resolve his anger toward his mother, refusing to accept any of her phone calls intended to close the gulf between them. At a so-called civil disobedience demonstration at a large bookstore Don becomes even more attracted to the cute student activist Penny (Claire Holt) he has observed around campus.

He joins the Pope in such hi jinx as placing a huge plastic phallus symbol over the tall tower of a local church. However, his pride in his accomplishment is deflated somewhat when Penny, hurt by the action, reveals that she is a believer who attends that church. His confrontation with Penny is the beginning of Don’s re-evaluation of his beliefs and behavior, though there are still plenty of bumps in the road for him.

The film has flaws, such as what seemed at times some stereotyping of both fundamentalists and liberals, and the scene of the students dressed as robots and computers protesting at Books, Ink seemed far too over the top to be believable. Conservative Christians will have problems with the language and the depiction of alcohol/drug, and perhaps even more by the non-judgmental approach toward Lauryn, a lesbian. Then too, as I learned during the online chat exchange following our screening, they will not like the film’s raising some of the failings of the church. One critic kept complaining of this, even stating that this showed a “hatred” toward Christianity—as if frankly admitting that the Crusaders did kill thousands of women and children, as well as combatants, might be a beginning of an honest appraisal of the past, not a vendetta against the Church.

I thought that the wild campus-wide party at he end of the film was too far out until I read about Reed College in Wikipedia. The academic year ends with the holding of something called the Renn Fayre which begins with the seniors turning into the library their senior theses and then heading out to a wild time that can be traced back to a Renaissance Fayre decades before and then changed into the time of games, booths, music, and drinking and eating in excess that we see in the film. It is at this that the climatic scene featuring the old Pope passing on his post to the new one brings the film to a highly dramatic and satisfying conclusion, one that like jazz, is not quite resolved.

As a depiction of a faith that is large enough for doubt and that admits that it does not have all the answers to the mysteries of life, Don’s father’s analogy is a good one, although in his dogmatic atheistic belief he would not accept this. I especially appreciated the film because the arc of Don’s spiritual journey is a little similar to my own journey. Mine wasn’t nearly as extreme, but it began in a fundamentalist church (one which taught that one must be baptized in “living water,” a river, not in an indoors” bathtub” ). During my junior high years I drifted away due to a couple of spiritual crises, one of them intellectual, and the other caused by what I then thought was God’s absence or indifference to my tearful prayers to stop my parents from divorcing. Then during my high school years the direction was reversed when through friends I discovered that in the Methodist Church one did not have to “check your brains at the door.” Thus despite its flaws, this film touched some chords buried deeply inside of me, and I think it will speak to others as well. This provocative film would be a good one for a youth group to watch and discuss about the nature of faith and doubt, but the leader should see it first and be sure to alert parents to the elements that almost resulted in the film being given an R r
ating.

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