Saturday, April 21, 2012

Movie Review: Blue Like Jazz

I haven't been to a movie since 1999.  I grew up in a church that taught movies were wrong, but I no longer think that.  Just haven't been to one.  When my friend Jill asked me to go with her to our closest city (about 2 1/2 hours each way!) to see this movie, I jumped at the chance.  Who would drive a total of five hours to watch a movie?  We did.

I have a bit of a history with the book Blue Like Jazz.  I had traveled to Israel some years back (more on that in a moment) and was really seeking answers.  My friend Jake recommended I read it.  Because he is usually into apologetics books I held off.  I didn't want to read something that was going to tell me all the evidences that the Bible was true;  this book was anything but.  Later, my friend Ben recommended I re-read this, and at that time I also read Donald Searching for God Knows What.  The title of that book pretty much summed up what I was feeling at that moment of my life.  My friend Ben told me that Donald Miller and Eudora Welty were two writers who most influenced his Christian life, and having read Welty in college, I decided to dive into Miller's books.  It had been about five years since I had last read a Donald Miller book, and I'm glad for the lapse from reading to be able to enjoy it on the big screen.   (See the movie first if you haven't read the book yet!)  I knew Miller was older when he started college, was confused with cell phones at first because I knew he is close to my age, and we didn't have laptops when I was a freshman!

My friend Jill grew up in church, like me, but she and I had very different experiences as we found out while munching on burritos afterwards.  The opening scenes (sans the communion cup factory one) could have been my formative years.  Yes, I've heard the urban legends about angels.  I have been to more lock-ins than I can count on both hands.  (In fact, just went to one a few months ago.)  I think my favorite scene from the beginning of the movie was here Donnie was dressed (literally) in the full armor of God.  I spent almost an hour looking for a photo of me dressed in the full armor of God circa 1989, but couldn't find it, nor could I find the boy who was dressed up.  We had a competition to see who could create the best armor from newspapers, and the boys won because they set some newspaper on fire to simulate the fiery darts of the evil one.  (See Ephesians 6:10-20).  Not only that but the movie pokes fun at the all important, sacred puppet ministry that churches seem to often do and not do well.  I was on the puppet team when I was growing up, so once again, I felt like my life was being told on the big screen.

Watch the trailer:

In the movie, unlike the book, Miller's mother has an affair with the youth pastor.  It needed to be some dramatic event to shock the viewers into understanding how disillusioned with the church Miller had become.  He goes to ultra-liberal Reed College and Lauren tells him early on if he is going to have friends, he better hide the fact he's a Baptist boy.  He dives head long into the party scene, lands in jail for a protest, is an astronaut at a robot demonstration, and befriends "The Pope" who is as anti-church as Miller is.

At this point of the movie, a couple in front of us left the theater.  I can only assume they were expecting a Christian movie with great family values, and it is more of a Christian kid turn frat boy coming of age story.  The language is a little rough, there are themes that you wouldn't want children to watch.  The child asking why the "happy balloon" was on top of the church steeple was one of the most uncomfortable for me in the entire movie, yet that child had one of the most memorable characters to me even though she was barely in the movie.  Again at the end when she tells Miller the line about his clothing (I don't want to spoil it) I almost cringed.  I'm not sure why I had the reaction I did to the girl, perhaps seeing her innocence as she, like the children at the lock in, are being given Kool-Aid  (a reference that was not lost on me in the movie.)  Just knowing that girl will have to have her own "Blue Like Jazz" experience to decide if her faith is real or not, something rattled me with her scenes.

In the movie, Miller's mother calls and tells him some even more news that shatters what little he has left of any semblance of the Christian life he grew up in where innocence is rewarded and the hard questions of life are ignored.  At this point Penny realizes that Miller is running from something and towards nothing.

Jill and I discussed this part of the movie after leaving the theater.  I specifically asked her, "What was your Reed College?" meaning where did she quit drinking the Kool-Aid to allow her faith to become real.  My Reed College was the Garden Tomb.  It felt surreal.  It wasn't the commercialization of the Holy Sites which I was warned about before my trip that shook me.  In fact, I didn't think they were overly commercialized.  But it was the number of groups in multiple languages partaking of Communion at the Garden Tomb.  It shook me and I wasn't sure if it was wine, juice, or grape Kool-Aid in those olive wood communion cups that the pilgrims could take home as a souvenir.  My Israel trip left me searching for --   God knows what.  I studied Hebrew thinking I could find what I was looking for there.  Things felt to unravel even more.  I asked a pastor some questions as I was truly seeking and he told me he didn't have time to answer.  In time I found a friend who was to me what Penny was to Donald Miller, grabbing the untethered space suit as you're slowly wandering into the abyss of space and reeling you back into the Shuttle.

One of the neatest things about this movie was the fact that funding ran dry and Miller asked those who the book had impacted to be a part of the movie.  For a donation, you became an associate producer and received a "Blue Like Jazz Associate Producer" t-shirt.  (Which, unfortunately, my friend Jill did not wear.)  We watched the credits to see her name, and there it was on the big screen.  On the way home, she played a message she had saved to her phone from the producer thanking her for being a part of the movie.

My friend Jill is listed here:  (It was so funny, we were hanging around with our camera phones out to capture her fifteen minutes of fame.  The number of associate producers amazed me, and even to get to the Js it felt like it took forever!  Neither of our phones would focus on the scrolling names long enough to get a still shot (I tried with still) so Jill grabbed 19 seconds of video.  What a fantastic way to raise money and make everyone feel involved with the movie.  Genius fundraising idea!

This is a hard movie to watch if you have a Christian background UNLESS you have become disillusioned with the church.  I was in tears at the end.  Hearing an apology of how Christians often time suck at the way the represent God, yet acknowledging it's a crappy representation of the Body of Christ, that was something I needed to hear, and I think tens of thousands of people need to hear.  Eight minutes of dialogue to end a movie?  Never done.  Until now.  It's profound, irreverent, and Christian. Blue Like Jazz has replaced π as my favorite movie of all time.  This movie is not for those who are clones (bonus points if you get the reference as it relates to this movie), nor is it for those who have not had their comfy Christian world shattered, but for those of us who have, it's a refreshing look at life, faith, and living our lives as Christians when we are surrounded by flawed people who more often seem to represent hypocrisy than Jesus.  

One of my favorite parts of the movie, personally, was when The Pope holds up a copy of a Chicken Soup for the Soul book.  He was saying that if there really is a God then God would not allow such books to be published.  Jill and I found this very funny as I was recently published in a Chicken Soup book.  We were laughing so hard, and I'm sure the other people in the theater wondered what we found so funny in a book burning scene.  

I paid for my movie admission myself.  However I will be honest.  Donald Miller offered to call everyone who posted a review of this movie on Facebook or Twitter on opening weekend.  It's no longer opening weekend, but Donald Miller, if you are reading this, I would love a phone call in exchange for this review.  (I don't know he will as opening weekend was LAST weekend, but if you are reading this, I would love to hear from you -- my e-mail is on the left side of the page here under "About me" and I'll e-mail you my phone number.  I would love a phone call from the author of some of the books who influenced me so much, as well as the subject of my favorite movie!  I'd love enjoying a laugh about the Chicken Soup for the Soul scene with him.)  

I am ready to read Blue Like Jazz again for the third time. I rarely re-read a book, let alone three times, so I think this speaks for how highly I like the book and movie.  I am also looking forward to the movie being released on DVD. 


  1. Now, for the record, I have worn my t-shirt several times and completely forgot about it until we were halfway to the theater. Loved the movie. I've been thinking about my reaction to it, and I think the reason the book resonated more with me than the movie is because I related more to thirtysomething-too-young-to-be-a-mid-life-crisis Don than college Don, being a thirtysomething myself when I first read it. But I can certainly relate to those adrift college years and questioning everything I was taught as a child. The movie felt very different than the book, but the message and the heart was still there, and I can't think how they could have adapted it better. It's telling that I didn't even notice those people get up and leave. :-) That "Chicken Soup" moment was hilarious. I loved that we had our own inside joke in the theater. Burn, baby, burn!

  2. I have the book on my summer reading list. I've been wanting to read it for a while, and a friend of mine kept telling me how amazing it was, so I think it's about time I did! I'd really like to see the movie after reading the book too.