There are bound to me some people that will refuse to see Blue Like Jazz. That is probably because the book it is based on is called Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller. The book is autobiographical. The film does take the general gist of what the book is about, but it does not rigidly stick to the events described in the book. The trailer for the film probably does not do the film any favors as God and Jesus are used in the first few seconds.
I was able to see the world premiere of Blue Like Jazz at the historic Paramount Theatre for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival. If you know anything about SXSW, you know that this is not a religious film festival and they go towards the more independent films. It speaks volumes about what kind of film Blue Like Jazz really is that SXSW supported the film.
The film tells the story of Donald (Marshall Allman) who escapes his Southern Baptist upbringing in Houston, Texas to the very progressive Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Donald (or Don) finds out that his married youth pastor has been having an affair with his mom. Don also has a father who is not religious and more laid back, but left Don and his mom when he was younger. Behind his back, his father gets him into Reed College and his mom’s affair precipitates Don’s escape to Reed College and to ditch his beliefs. What happens and who he meets at Reed initially encourages Don’s abandonment of his beliefs. Through this journey of his first year at college and away from home, Don also finds out who he really is.
I am a sometimes Christian who leans more towards Agnostic on most days. I did not find the tone of the film to be religious. I found Blue Like Jazz to be more about self-discovery and adventure. Through resentment and anger towards his mom and his church, Don escapes to a new town far, far away. He gets to experience so many weird and odd things at the very liberal Reed College (where even umbrellas in the rain are frowned upon). In other words, this is not Fireproof or any those marketed overtly Christian films that I moan about every time I see a trailer for one.
Director Steve Taylor, who was also one of the screenwriters, angled the film more towards the comedic side of events. Not having read the book, I do not know if comedy is part of the source material as well. I found myself laughing most of the time, rather than trying to figure out if I was being preached to in the course of the film. Steve Taylor also uses some animation and snippets of Don floating in space wearing a space suit. Of course, the floating in space is used to represent what is going on in Don’s life at certain moments in the film. Blue Like Jazz was actually filmed in Portland, Oregon and on the campus of the real Reed College. It helps to lend an element of authenticity to it.
Marshall Allman plays Don well with a geeky exterior that could only spell someone who has not escaped the confines of the church very often. Through the film, Don is transformed in how he dresses, what he wears his hair like, and how he interacts with people. Marshall Allman portrays Don with enough “wide-eyeness” to convince anyone that he is indeed a fish out of water. Claire Holt plays the possible love interest, Penny, while Tania Raymonde (Lost) plays the dark, rebellious, mostly lesbian Lauryn. Justin Welborn seems to be mostly known for his horror roles based on his IMDB page, but convincingly plays The Pope, who hides a secret that has shaped what he thinks about religion.
While I do not think one little review from me will convince you that Blue Like Jazz is not out to convert you, it is a film that does not deserve the dismissal from everyone just because it does deal with religion. It has enough credibility with SXSW to at least be on your radar as a film to take a chance on. While I will say that it is not the best film out there, it does have enough laughs, creativity, and interesting characters to have me recommend it to the (small) masses. It is a good film. Blue Like Jazz is a perfect example in the film world of “Don’t judge by its cover.”
I give Blue Like Jazz 3 “Pope hats” out of 5.