Last night, I saw the Austin premiere of Blue Like Jazz, the movie based on Donald Miller’s book of the same title. It will be in theaters beginning on April 13. The film was an official selection of the South by Southwest Film Festival and it was shown in the Paramount theater, one of SXSW’s larger venues. The theater was quite full and the audience, judging from their laughter and applause, thoroughly enjoyed the movie.
If you’re a fan of the book Blue Like Jazz, and this includes well over a million people who bought this New York Times bestseller, you’ll hear obvious echoes of the book in the film. But the movie tells a fictional story based on a fictional character called Don Miller. This story is loosely based on the actual experiences of the author, Donald Miller. Like the historical Donald, the movie Don grew up in a stifling, silly, superficial Christian subculture. Both figures ended up at the hyper-liberal Reed College in Oregon, where they discovered a more authentic and humble way to be Christian in the midst of a vehement anti-Christian ethos. The movie version of Don is younger than the real Donald, however, someone who becomes a full-time college student at Reed, rather than a 30-year-old who takes some classes there, as did the real Donald. The genuine Donald Miller participated in the writing of the movie version of Blue Like Jazz. He tells this story in a compelling, moving, and delightfully humorous way in his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.
The film version of Blue Like Jazz begins by showing the inanity and hilarity of Don’s Christian experience in Texas. Yet, it’s the sting of hypocrisy that sends him to Reed College, a place about as far away from a Christian culture as anything could be. In his first experiences at Reed, Don is shocked and delighted by the sacrilegious, secular, and even playfully pagan ways of the college culture. He quickly abandons his narrow Christianity in order to impress his fellow students and be liked by them. Yet, even as Don’s previous Christian faith was one-inch deep, so too is his rejection of Christianity. Nevertheless, Don feels free and loves being able to live without the limits of his former faith.
Yet God isn’t through with Don. In a variety of ways, God seeks Don even though Don doesn’t want to have anything to do with God. In particular, God uses a fellow student named Penny (Claire Holt) to challenge his self-absorbed rejection of faith. Don cannot despise or ignore her example of a simple testimony about Jesus, as well as her commitment to living her faith in an authentic, sacrificial way. I will not spoil the movie by explaining the other ways God draws Don into a deeper and truer faith. If you’ve read the book, you might be able to guess how it ends. If not, you’ve got a moving and altogether satisfying surprise waiting for you.
I had seen a couple of rough cuts of Blue Like Jazz last summer when Steve Taylor, the movie’s co-writer, director, and co-producer was at Laity Lodge. I liked the movie then, but was thrilled last night to see how the film has evolved. Now, the story is even more convincing and touching. In particular, I was deeply moved by a scene that had not been in an earlier version of the film. Steve and his team have done a great job shaping this story so that it rings true.
I should mention that, because Steve Taylor is a friend of mine, I was able to get complementary passes to the premiere. Also, my seats weren’t too bad either. My wife Linda took this photo from our seats. To the left you have Donald Miller, the author of Blue Like Jazz. On the right is Marshall Allam, who plays Don Miller in the film. These gentlemen seemed plenty nervous just seconds before their movie was to be premiered. Yet, I expect they were soon delighted by the response of the crowd.
I mentioned earlier that the audience enjoyed the film. There was ample laughter in many scenes, with times of nervous silence when appropriate. I would put myself right in the middle of those who enjoyed Blue Like Jazz. Why? Well, first of all, the story of the movie is a believable and compelling one. It asks some deep questions and is not satisfied with shallow answers. It shows how Christians can be silly hypocrites, but also how they can live out their faith in a genuine and compelling way. Yet, the movie is not preachy. It’s a film I would be happy to show to people across the spectrum of religious belief, including no religious belief at all.
I know that millions of people will love Blue Like Jazz. Most of them will be between the ages of 12 and 40. In some cases, older people might not relate to the film and might be put off by its accurate portrayal of collegiate irreverence and debauchery. Last summer at Laity Lodge, we ran some early versions of the film. Most people enjoyed the movie and wished it every success. Some older adults, however, were offended by what they saw. (There is no sex or nudity in the film, but the language is sometimes salty and there is ample use of drugs and alcohol. It is rated PG-13, for good reason.)
I like the characters in Blue Like Jazz. Marshall Allam doesn’t try to imitate the real Donald Miller. Rather, Allam creates a distinctive, believable character called Don Miller. He doesn’t overplay his part, which lends credibility to his portrayal. The other major characters also seem like real people. Claire Holt plays a close female friend of Don, whose expression of Christian faith challenges his lazy agnosticism. Tanya Raymonde is winsome as a lesbian who seeks deeper relationships, even with Don.
I like the movie version of Blue Like Jazz very much. For one thing, I was happy to see a movie with a strong story and good actors. I laughed several times, felt deeply engaged, and even choked up in a couple of scenes. So many films I’ve seen recently are mired in cynicism. There is plenty of cynicism in Blue Like Jazz, because the world in which Don Miller finds himself is full of it. But Blue Like Jazz is not stuck there. Nor does it offer trite, easy hope.
I can envision this film having a powerful impact on Christians who feel trapped in an oppressive Christian subcultures. Like the book, the movie invites Christians to believe and live their faith with fresh authenticity and cultural relevance. I can also imagine this movie opening up valuable conversations among Christians and those who are not believers. My 17-year-old daughter said this was a Christian film she would not be afraid to invite a non-Christian friend to see. I agree.
I recommend Blue Like Jazz as a movie that tells an engaging story. It will make you smile and, at times, cringe. If you’re a Christian, it will encourage you to think about how you live out your faith in the world where you live. And if you’re not a Christian, it will encourage you to get beyond the stereotypes and consider whether God might make a difference in your life.