I’m Feeling Ambivalent about Blue Like Jazz: The Movie

If you travel in the same online circles as me, you are being inundated with urgings to support and see Blue Like Jazz, the movie based on Don Miller’s best-selling memoir. Friends on Facebook who once begged me to send money to the Kickstarter campaign for the film are now pleading with me to buy tickets in advance, an effort to show theater owners how great this film is.

But these efforts give me the willies. It reminds me of when Christianity Today literally wrapped itself in a promotion for Evan Almighty, a sophomoric and poorly made movie (23% on Rotten Tomatoes) — editor David Neff called it a “bold symbol of the new cooperative spirit” between Hollywood and the evangelical church.

Hollywood must have forgotten about that cooperative spirit, because Steve Taylor couldn’t find investors to make the BLJ movie. Supporters of the film decided to crowdsource it, raising over $345,000 on Kickstarter, the second-largest Kickstarter campaign of 2010. As you can imagine, I’m a fan of crowdsourcing and of making end-runs around traditional media (hence my ebook publishing), but I was a little put-off by the often panicky appeals during the fundraising campaign.

Now, on the eve of the release, I’m similarly ambivalent. In spite of numerous invitations to see pre-screenings of the movie, I haven’t yet seen it. Many of my friends have. Some have loved it, and others have walked out because they found it to be horrible. The Village Voice reviewed it at SXSW and concluded,

Blue Like Jazz … departs from the typical Christian movie in that it sensibly preaches tolerance and personal integrity over indoctrination, holding no animus toward Reed’s “godless” student body. One only has so much patience, though, for watching Communion-wafer-thin characters caught in a liberal-arts cartoon.

Time Out New York hated it.

Now, my fellow Christians are beseeching me to see it. It’s not quite like when Christians proclaimed that The Passion was going to the be greatest evangelism opportunity since Peter’s sermon on Pentecost (Ed Young, Jr. said that). But the the pressure is on nevertheless. It seems likely, from what I’ve heard, that critics are going to pan this movie, or at least give it an overwhelming, “Meh.” Fearing this, many of my fellow Christians desperately want this movie to succeed commercially, because if it doesn’t, the thinking goes, they’ll never make another Christian movie again!

That’s what Gerardo Marti hopes,

But the ability to portray this “anti-Christian,” Christianity could spur the production of even more creative work that puts religion and social change into a broader conversation.

Donald Miller

But here’s where my ambivalence comes in. I agree with them, in part. I don’t know Don Miller. Never met him. But I like him, and I know that we share friends and sensibilities. He took a big career risk by publicly stumping for Obama four years ago. He’s dedicated to the craft of writing, and to helping out young writers. And he (usually) writes about the Christian faith with a nuance that many on the evangelical side of the dial lack. So, I want him to succeed. If anyone should make a film about Christianity in the late 20th century, it should be Don Miller.

But, I also don’t want the movie to be bad. And I hope it’s not.

Have you seen the movie? Read the book? What do you think?

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  • Wes

    Yes, I saw it. Definitely better than any other “christian” film that I have seen, but It left me wanting more. Still wasn’t up to the standard that I was hoping for. Biggest issue was the special effects/graphics. The movie was made for 1.3 million, so not a big surprise there, but the way some folks have told me it is the best thing ever…just not on board with it.

  • I’ve read the book and did really like it, although not as much as I liked his Searching for God Knows What which I find is very under-rated. I’ll probably try to see the movie but as far as I know it is only in select cities in the US and I’m in Canada.

  • I’ve seen the film now twice. First was a rough cut, the second was the finished product. The movie isn’t great, but it is really good. It’s certainly not the groaner that some reviewers are saying it is. It’s a film I’m comfortable with recommending to my discerning friends, like Tony Jones. You’ll certainly find things that you don’t like, that don’t work, but for the most part it’s well-done and worth seeing.

  • I’ve read the book and used it to spur discussion in last summer’s Sunday morning chats. It’s worth reading even if only for entertainment. Miller’s angst is representative of many of ours. His picture of reality seen through his eyes is selective, but it is easy to generalize to my picture. His seemingly endless process of maturing does provide some valuable lessons, especially since his dilemmas, though different from mine, are nonetheless typical of my endless process. There’s comfort in the book and a way in for the outsider. I do like his experimental attitude. He tries stuff out and then writes about it. Too many of us just drift along without even experimenting, and they wonder why Christianity is boring. I will not be seeing the movie until it makes it to Netflix.

  • I refuse to consume any piece of media/art simply because it’s “Christian.”

    I can’t seem to find the quote at the moment, but Jon Foreman, lead singer of Switchfoot, has a really great quote about this. Paraphrasing, he says that you don’t have to name Jesus in every single song, piece of art, etc. He says that if you follow Christ, and you focus on making good art, then the act of doing so brings glory to God intrinsically.

    I agree with Jon on this completely.

    Don’t make “Christian” movies. Make good movies. And let the good movie speak for itself.

  • Kenton

    Haven’t seen the movie, did read the book. While I liked the book OK enough, I didn’t see what the big deal was either. I did know a lot of folks who were in the “Oh this is one of the best books ever written” camp (including one guy who hadn’t read… any… other books), so I wonder if I just missed something. I think the appeal was the fact that the book was written by a Christian, and there was a certain genuineness to it. I guess that element is missing from a lot of the books sold at LifeWay that you and I don’t read a lot of.

    I did find the confessional scene entertaining, but beyond that it was… OK.

  • Saw a prescreening in NYC a few weeks ago, though it was literally the worst movie I have ever seen in a theater. If I wasn’t so bored, I would have been angrier. I think the film is the kind of shallow, disingenuous, and self-congratulatory work that only evangelicals would churn out and be proud of. I wrote a probably much too long review a nice little dialogue with Christian Piatt about it:
    I think we represent the pessimistic-critical / optimistic-critical attitudes towards this project. Though I do fully expect to be vindicated by Rotten Tomatoes in a few days ; )

  • J.T.

    I was a big supporter of this movie until I saw a screening of it at NYWC in Atlanta. I’m sure that was a rough-ish cut of the final film, but the things that disappointed me are not things that you can fix in post-production.

    Also – please let’s not pin our hopes for Christianity on some sort of mass-media. Not print, radio, TV, or even film. There’s no magic media bullet that’s going to rescue faith from the culture crapper. Let’s instead pin it on one-to-one, life-to-life genuine love and relationships. No movie, no matter how well-written or well-made can accomplish what those things can.

    • J.T.

      Also – It seems like they have shown it for free to just about anybody who might have been willing to pay to see it! Counterproductive.

  • I saw one of the previews and wrote a review for it. i liked it. I think it’s worthwhile. it’s not the best cinematic experience I’ve had in my life, but it’s engaging and breaks the mold of Christian/secular films. Here’s my review in case you’re interested:

  • Frank

    I couldn’t make it through the book due to the self-absorbed author so I doubt I could make it through the movie.

    • JoeyS

      You said “I” three times in one sentence.

      • Bart Wang

        Zing! JoeyS gets checkmate! Frank, do you read autobiographies in hopes that the author writes about someone other than themselves?

        • Frank

          There are plenty of interesting and meaningful autobiographies. Blue Like Jazz was not one of them.

  • SuperStar

    I saw the movie last fall and I don’t think it will make it. The character development was weak. You are not emotionally engaged by the characters, although the female lead was the best. You never really felt like you cared for anyone in the movie nor why they got in the situations they did. And I’m not sure who would want to go and see this film unless you are a BLUE LIKE JAZZ or Donald Miller fan. It needs some serious script development. I don’t think you can fix these things in the final cut.

  • “Nothing is ever as fantastic or as horrible as you anticipate it to be.” As for the critics, it’s a Christian film. They don’t know what to do with it. Christians are the last remaining whipping boy. Not that we haven’t deserved some ire, but the animosity on both sides, secular and conservative-Christian. Broad comedy and soul searching are allowed if Judd Apatow is at the helm. Why not Steve Taylor? Or rather, give Steve Taylor a 100 mil budget and then we’ll compare.

    Village Voice review was chock full of the lack of grace and uber-hip prosleytzing it accused the film of containing. Methinks the VV reviewer did posture too much. Just go see it before you read any more reviews. Especially if you want the catalog of faith-friendly films to extend beyond Sherwood Pictures’ library.

    • Nope, that’s off limits. You can’t say, “This would have been a better movie if they would have had a bigger budget.” Nope.

      • Tony! I was referring to the Judd Apatow movies, which have deftly mixed broad comedy and soul searching, and have had the budget to do it well. To fully exploit a joke or a concept because they had the money to get the location, the cast, and the props. For example, the hysterical music video to “Let the Sunshine In” at the end of the 40 Year Old Virgin. Compared to, say, the fantasy sequences in BLJ which the reviewers hated. Anyway go see the movie.

  • JoeyS

    I read the book. I like Searching For God Knows What better but Blue Like Jazz was refreshing in some sense. I gave $10 to the movie. I haven’t seen it and won’t go to it this Friday but I hope to see it soon. My expectations are not high but I, like you, hope it connects to an audience somehow.

  • Frank

    And? Am I not allowed to give my opinion on a book or movie or is that only reserved for Tony and other posters? There were plenty of “I’s” in Tonys post.

    • Scot Miller

      Um, Frank, I think JoeyS was just pointing to the irony of your complaint about a “self-absorbed author….”

      • Frank

        Um Scot I think that was obvious however his attempt at “gotcha”was a pitful one.

        When one gives an opinion we use the word “I”. What does that have to do with the self absorbed story that Miller tells in his book?

        When I write a self absorbed book you can feel free to criticize it.

        So I guess I have become a target because I was spot on about Gagnon and your response to it? *shrug

        • Scot Miller

          Sorry, Frank. It looked like you misunderstood the comment as some sort of dismissive, personal attack instead of a little humorous jab. Looks like we hit a nerve….

          • Frank

            Scot I am confused as to why you are speaking for Joey? Its very telling actually.

            Yes attempts at a “gotcha” moment offend me greatly when it’s not based in truth nor is clever or remotely applicable.

            If it was an attempt at humor then I am offended as a comedian.

          • JoeyS

            Frank, sorry if I offended you. I was just using a little irony. That you didn’t find it funny is not that much of a concern to me but I promise you it was meant purely as an ironic gesture, not a personal attack.

          • Frank

            Joey no worries and I am not really offended just having a little fun too!

  • Phil Miller

    This reviewer over at the Onion’s AV Club site liked the movie. He gave it a B+.


  • Tessa

    Honestly, Tony, just see the movie before you spout ambivalence. Then give a critique. And if you like Don Miller, as you say you do, give it a chance. Meh, indeed.

  • I saw the movie with my wife. Only one other couple in the theater. They left during the bookstore scene. We stayed. But I agree with above critiques. I couldn’t care much for anyone but Penny. Everyone seemed like a sophomoric cartoon of real people.
    I feel like it violated everything that has made Donald Miller so awesome. It’s not worthy of the book or Miller’s sermon/speech on “Story”. The story lacks focus. Characters lack authenticity. And no way things get resolved in that final scene so quickly. Book version was so much better.
    Soul-crushingly disappointing. Nobody wanted to like it more than me. Ugh!
    Can I blame Steve Taylor? It’s like it tried to be “Thin Ice” in reverse. In the end a formulaic “not-a-Christian-movie” Christian movie. All about a decision that changes everything but doesn’t get explored or realistically played out.
    Oddly, I hope others like it enough that nobody loses money.

  • Deb Wilborn

    I saw it Friday with my husband. Now, my husband used to go to church but has become disillusioned with it. This movie spoke to him. He was still talking about it 12 hours later (while I was trying to go to sleep, but I indulged him). He loved the character of The Pope. It is funny that Tim Stidman liked Penny – she’s the only character I thought was not well-rounded enough – all she did was look with sad eyes and pout.

    This wasn’t a film meant to give the answers. It was a film meant to ask questions. It ends on an unresolved note – because life is unresolved. We don’t get that final resolution until the very end – and find that our end is just another beginning in Christ.

    It’s not a film that will change the world, but if it gets fairly apathetic guys like my husband conversing about faith, I’ll give it rave reviews – over and over.

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