I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.
After that I liked jazz music.
Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.
I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.
– Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz
My wife asked me what Donald Miller meant when he wrote that jazz music doesn’t resolve. I explained that unlike most music, jazz doesn’t follow a predefined formula. It doesn’t necessarily have a distinct beginning, middle, and end; it’s impromptu, meandering, and created from the soul. Most music is like a story with clearly defined elements of setting, character, conflict, and resolution. But jazz doesn’t always follow such guidelines. Still it can be just as beautiful and just as powerful, and it’s often more so.
Based (very loosely) on the Donald Miller book by the same name, Blue Like Jazz the movie tells the story of Don (played by Marshall Allman), whose own story has already been written. Having grown up in a straight-laced, conservative Southern Baptist church in Houston, Don is preparing to transfer from his local junior college to the prestigious Baptist university down the road. A good son to his divorced mother and an assistant youth pastor, the resolution to Don’s story is already planned, but a stunning event suddenly causes him to question everything he believes in and he soon finds himself in Portland, Oregon, enrolled in the ultra-liberal Reed College, described as the most godless college campus in America.
Once at Reed, Don distances himself from his faith, not quite denying his belief in God but running away from it as far as he can, even if it means hurting his closest friends and family in the process. But even at the most godless campus in America, he realizes he can’t ignore the questions of whether God truly exists, and if so, what do you do with that? As the real Donald Miller said after Wednesday night’s screening in Fort Worth, “I found God at Reed College. I didn’t find him at a Southern Baptist church in Houston.”
The movie is frequently hilarious, especially when it pokes fun at its fellow Christians and the often corny subculture we tend to surround ourselves with. (The disappointed looks on the kids’ faces when they find out the cross-shaped piñata their youth pastor presents at story time in church is filled with grape juice communion cups instead of candy is priceless.) Such jabs are not mean-spirited in any way and come across as inside jokes to those of us who grew up in such churches. For any conservative Christian who gets their feathers ruffled five minutes into the movie, I would advise them to hold their outrage till the end of the movie because they’ll almost certainly feel completely different about it. As Miller explains, there’s one Christian jerk in the movie but a whole ton of Christian heroes.
A few weeks ago, I speculated that Blue Like Jazz is the “anti-Courageous“, a movie about Christians but not a Christian movie in the traditional sense. And I think that’s true. Although it has a powerful message, this isn’t exactly a family-friendly movie that you would show in church. It’s rated PG-13 for language, drug and alcohol use, and the general debauchery that you would expect at a place like Reed. (Most of that debauchery is during the Renn Fayre sequence, which is a real annual event at Reed and which Miller assured us was toned down a lot for the movie.) But none of the cussing or carousing is gratuitous or excessive; what cussing there is is necessary for the realism of the story, and it’s certainly nothing you wouldn’t hear on prime time television. Overall, I would say it’s a perfectly safe movie for high school kids and older. It’s probably not appropriate for middle school kids, but that’s up to the parents. It’s definitely not appropriate for young kids.
One of my biggest concerns going into the movie was how the subject of homosexuality would be treated in it based on unChristian author Gabe Lyons’ statement that “[h]omosexuals who believe in God will love the relationship between Don and Laura. Conservative Christians are going to have the hardest time with it – but it is a necessary affliction they need to feel.” I wondered when I first read Lyons’ assessment if there was some sort of anti-conservative political or social agenda at work, but that’s not the case at all. The character of Lauryn (based on the real-life Laura of the book and played wonderfully by Lost‘s Tania Raymonde) is an instantly lovable character who hits it off with Don, whom she dubs “Baptist Boy”. And while her character is a lesbian (the real Laura is not), she’s not written to be angry, bitter, or caustic the way gay characters are so often typecast. I asked Mr. Miller about the reasoning for writing Lauryn as a lesbian, and he replied that they didn’t want there to be a love triangle between Don, Lauryn, and Penny (Claire Holt), so that’s why they did it. Fair enough.
Blue Like Jazz presents two very different extremes in Don’s life: a rigid, safe, ultra-conservative Christian doctrine on one end, and a world completely devoid of God on the other. In each case, he’s left feeling empty, and the question is naturally raised: Is there a happy middle ground, a place where God is real and alive and tangible? The movie doesn’t attempt to explain the doctrine of the Gospel, but it doesn’t need to. Instead, it serves as an ideal jumping off point for further discussion and introspection.
Blue Like Jazz the book challenges us to love with action. Blue Like Jazz the movie inspires us to love authentically. In both cases, the ending isn’t perfectly resolved. But that’s a lot like jazz and even more like life.
Blue Like Jazz opens in select markets April 13.