Blue Like Jazz

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
(c) 2012 Roadside Attractions

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 glory 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

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 the film  melting away due to the well crafted script (by Taylor, Ben Pearson, joined by Don Miller himself) and excellent performances by the actors.

According to those who have read the book (I haven’t), the story is a very fictionalized account of a young man’s spiritual journey from a closed belief system to skeptic denial and back to a spiritual belief that is open and affirming. Don (Marshall Allman) is a 19 year-old enrolled in a Baptist junior college and active as an assistant leader in the junior high fellowship of his Southern Baptist Church in Texas. 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. At Reed Don at first is like a fish out of water. Girls freely use the men’s bathroom, drinking and swearing are rampant, 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 away by the confident skepticism of his peers who love to mock the faith. The stand out of the latter is the student known only as the Pope (Justin Welborn), who almost always is wearing arobe and pontifical hat. Needless to say, this is a character whom Catholic viewers will have trouble relating to until 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 a bottled water product despised by the students because its expensive contents can be obtained free at a water faucet.

During this middle period of the film when he has rejected his old faith his spirit seems to be sustained by the love for jazz inherited from his father and fed by his listening to a recoringd of John Coltrain. The boy has embraced his father’s statement that “Jazz is like life because it doesn’t resolve.” Don hismelf refuses to resolve his anger toward his mother, ignoring her frequent  phone calls. At a so-called civil disobedience demonstration at a large bookstore Don becomes even more attracted to the cute student activist Penny (Claire Holt) whom he had observed around campus. He joins in such hi jinx as placing a huge plastic phallis 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 plenty of bumps in the road for him yet.

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 much over the top to be believable. Conservative Christians will have problems with the language and alcohol/drug depiction–and also, as I learned during the online chat exchange following our screening, with the film’s raising some of the failings of the church acknowledged in the film. One critic kept complaining of this, even stating that this showed a “hatred” toward Christianity–as if frankly admiting that the Crusaders killing thousands of women and children, as well as combatants, was evidence of a vendetta against the Church by the filmmakers.

I thought that the wild campus-wide party at he end of the film was too far out until I read about Reed College and that the Renn Fayre, staged by seniors at the end of the academic year, actually takes place, with its bizarre events of drinking, eating, and more by costumed students dating back to a Renaissance Fayre decades earlier. 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, Doin’s father’s analogy is a good one, even though he in his dogmatic skepticism would not grasp this. I especially appreciated the film because the arc of Don’s spiritual journey is a little similar to my journey. Mine wasn’t nearly as exrteme, 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”), from which during my junior high years I drifted away due to a couple of spiritual crises. Then during my high school years the direction was reversed when I discovered that in the Methodist Chrurch one did nt have to “check your brains at the door.”

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 rating.

A version of this review with 12 multi-part questions is available forVisual Parables subscribers at visualparables.net.
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