There’s an old English proverb that says,
“Give an intern a dollar and they’ll rent a movie from Redbox. But give them a ticket to a screening of Blue Like Jazz, and they’ll write a review for you.”
As a progressive Christian in my mid-20s, it'd be safe to bet I might be a fan of Donald Miller. And I am. Miller's Blue Like Jazz and Searching For God Knows What are among the books that have significantly affected my faith journey.
And, like many others in my demographic, I met the news of an adaptation of Blue Like Jazz with both hope and apprehension. Like Miller himself, “at first, I didn’t understand how it could be a movie. I couldn’t see it on a screen.”
My own anxieties about a big-screen adaptation fell into two categories. First Jazz is, for all intents and purposes, a memoir. And memoirs — or the biopics they often become onscreen — are, in my opinion, rarely great films. They are usually little more than a path to the Oscars for actors who are pining after an ego-boost (but I guess that’s another story).
What saves Blue Like Jazz, thankfully, is that it is a memoir with a difference. It isn’t a rose-tinted, romanticized account of some historical or celebrated figure. It is the memoir of someone who is very much like me — just a little bit funnier. That’s where the appeal comes from and I'd expect that's what will make Blue Like Jazz (the film) a success both here and abroad.
My second anxiety resides in the fact that Blue Like Jazz (the book) isn’t one story. It dips into Miller’s life at various points and shows the reader what he was thinking/feeling/doing at that point in time. It is a compilation of vignettes from a life that is less than half-lived (the book was published in 2003, when Miller was 32 and tackles stories from his mid-20s).
How could such a unique narrative transfer successfully into a 90-minute movie without leaving the audience feeling short-changed?
Thankfully, both of these fears were allayed when I saw the film last week and heard Don Miller and director Steve Taylor answering audience questions after the screening.
What I saw was a movie that turned a uniquely personal story into a film from which everyone can take something away (particularly if you fall into the 18-29, aka "Millennial" demo.)
Yes, the story revolves around Don (played with just the right amount of wit, vulnerability and immaturity by Marshall Allman), but from where I was sitting, Blue Like Jazz (the movie) is a true ensemble piece rather than a character study of a sole protagonist.
My anxieties also were put to rest by the filmmaker's decision to fictionalize and adapt the book into a single narrative arc. During the post-screening Q & A, Miller said there was an "essential truth" that the book and the movie both held, but that the structure of the book didn’t get in the way of creating a story that made sense in a film context.
Some people who attended the screening with me, struggled to reconcile these adaptations. They were frustrated by the lack of in-depth character development and the bite-size scenes to which some parts of the book were reduced. But that’s what has to happen when any book is adapted. And for me, the essential truth of which Miller spoke was not lost.
Blue Like Jazz is a book/film about the mundane and quotidien. There are no special effects. There is a single chase scene (which involves Don, a brown bear and a stolen bicycle). Some artistic license was taken in the journey from book to film. And the changes that were made do, to my eye at least, work.
I imagine that some people would call Blue Like Jazz a "Christian coming of age" story. But this is not your usual "coming-of-age" flick a la John Hughes or Diablo Cody.
Sure, it has many of the genre's hallmarks — a "normal" life brought crashing down by an unexpected turn of events; a rebellion, a love interest and a quirky side-kick; laughter, tears and misunderstandings.
But it could never have been a true "coming-of-age" movie. Don doesn’t come of age. The movie concludes at the end of his first year at Reed College — the "most godless campus in America" — at the moment when resolution seems as if it may be upon us.
In some ways, as a viewer, I did feel cheated. Blue Like Jazz lacks the neatly wrapped Hollywood ending that we have come to expect. It is in many ways a messy ending. Because really, it’s not an ending at all.
It would be naïve to expect a resolution. Those of us who view the world through a lens of faith know that the race is never completely run on this side of eternity.
Much like what Don’s father teaches him about jazz, this is not a movie that resolves. And yet it speaks authentically of the experiences of many young Christians, and probably those who wouldn’t call themselves Christians, too.
Blue Like Jazz recognizes and honors the struggles, doubts, joys and pains that many of us go traverse as we (hopefully) mature. And it does so in a way that makes you laugh (a lot), cringe, and weep. Most importantly this is a film that questions and compells the audience to do the same.
Why is Don so willing to abandon the church?
Why does he so readily deny his upbringing?
Why does Reed College have its own Pope?
Why do I have so many questions about this movie?
But if you do see Blue Like Jazz, I bet you'll have your own questions, and if you ask them, you just might learn something about yourself, your faith (or seeming lack thereof) and God — the eternally unresolvable, like jazz.
Jack Palmer is a communications assistant at Sojourners. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackPalmer88.