Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Blue Like Jazz, The Movie

A number of years ago I got to spend some time with Steve Taylor, director and co screenwriter of Blue Like Jazz, I doubt he remembers it, but I certainly do. On one occasion I was on a panel discussion with him at the National Youth Workers Convention in Dallas Texas. There was another time I met him while I was with the band I was working with Rob Castles Band (AKA Rob Cassels Band) when we were doing a show at the Creation Festival in Pennsylvania. I was backstage behind the stage when Steve arrived at the festival. I noticed a large number of people asking him for autographs as he was a remarkable performer. I will never forget him cautioning those fans over their seemingly ‘worship’ of him. He told them something like, ‘hey guys, please, it is all about Jesus not me.’ He unlike so many others I had met in the ‘Christian Music Industry’ actually practiced what he preached and lived out his faith in a real and honest way.

There is also my association with the cinematographer and co writer of the screenplay of Blue Like Jazz, Ben Pearson. Ben was in Wichita with mutual friend Gay Quisenberry showing his new movie Kabul 24 at the Tallgrass Film Festival. I had a lunch meeting with Ben and a few others and was telling him of my disdain over much of what was considered ‘Christian Cinema.’ I told him of one of the few movies I had seen that I liked called Second Chances. It was real, communicated truth and for a freshman effort from Steve Taylor I was very pleased with the movie for its reality and authenticity. Little did I know, and was shockingly surprised when Ben told me that he had also written the screenplay for the movie and had also done the cinematography. We developed a friendship after that and I was pleased when I heard of his own involvement in Blue Like Jazz, the somewhat controversial novel being made into a movie with Christian overtones written by Donald Miller.

I went through a gambit of emotions when my friend Gay Quisenberry told me the movie was having difficulty raising funds for production. I was shocked because the novel had been a New York Times Best Seller. I couldn’t imagine the movie having difficulty being made. I was working on my own short film, The Long Walk at the time and Gay told me about a fund raising website ran through Amazon called Kickstarter. Apparently Blue Like Jazz was using this site as a means for fans to support the making of and production of Blue Like Jazz. It wasn’t long before Blue Like Jazz ran the most successful Kickstarter Campaign to date. Raising over $350,000 the movie was made with a theatrical release. I had something to look forward to. I knew several people where the book had had some impact on and knew the movie would have the same impact on others

Blue Like Jazz the movie is based loosely off the book by the same title written by Donald Miller. The movie basically has Miller growing up in a strict Southern Baptist home where he comes to realize much of the hypocrisy that goes on within the church and in particular between his mother and the youth pastor. His father, an outcast and divorcee from his mother has arranged for him to attend the ultra liberal arts college in Portland Oregon, Reed College. After going through a sort of crisis of faith and a rejection of his beliefs, the story follows Miller through his journey in a humorous, yet realistic rediscovery of his faith. We see an honest search ultimately not just in Miller but in other characters in the story.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how one looks at Blue Like Jazz one can’t help but come across and deal with the comparisons to the ‘Christian Film Industry.’ Blue Like Jazz follows a realistic concept, complete with language, and situations that most any typical college student going to a non Christian Liberal Arts College would go through. It is here that much of the controversy, within the ‘Christian Industry’ has made addressed. Despite what many think, I think the sense of realism is something those outside of the typical conservative or fundamental Christian faith will appreciate, especially those who aren’t Christian. In the process, Taylor goes places few others in the Christian Industry have gone before; he understands his audience and the message. I personally found the ‘language’ and ‘situations’ to be mild, then again I have my own experiences in the attempt to tell a realistic story to an audience other than ‘Christian.’ Of course I also realize there are those who come from a more accepting, non judgmental belief system who may for one reason or another feel uncomfortable with the various situations presented on screen. I would challenge and ask those individuals, when we read about a savior named Jesus who was accused of many things, including going to too many parties, dealing with and having relationships with some unsavory characters, to ask ourselves the question, where do those uncomfortable feelings come from? I am not, nor do I think the makers of Blue Like Jazz are advocating for unruly, or inappropriate behaviors, but they simply understand, it is a part of the reality of many and that possibly, like the Apostle Paul, they are finding ways to become all things to all people in order that they may win some. I happen to think Blue Like Jazz is more of a Biblical narrative in authentic form than an advocation of behaviors some may consider undesirable.

If seeing Blue Like Jazz and I hope most of you do, don’t expect an Academy Award movie, it simply isn’t and there are times you can tell the film is a low budget film. The acting, script, direction and set are far above most of what has been done in the past in ‘Christian Cinema.’ If I had any complaint regarding the movie it is in knowing of Taylor’s remarkable music career and my being disappointed with the musical score. Other than that, I felt the movie held up well with other films, despite the genera of film. It was a good measure above the majority of so called Christian films. That all said, I can’t help but think that Pearson, Miller, and Taylor would all, if not have already, cringed at the comparison to ‘Christian’ film. I suspect and appreciate the likelihood, it was likely their intent to make a good movie, by any standards, but one that also held true to the concepts and Christian World View they each possess. To that end, I think they have done a good job.

There are concepts in the bible that has Jesus talking about ‘story;’ including several passages that states that he (Jesus) never taught them anything without first telling them stories. After he told them the stories he often gathered them together to explain the meaning of the stories. In that regard, Blue Like Jazz is a telling of story that has underlying Gospel (meaning good news) themes. There are also Biblical concepts speaking about the importance of planting seeds, a metaphor for sharing Biblical truths, then depending on where the seed falls determines where, how, and what will happen to that seed. I am a firm believer that film, especially film with truth concepts can be used to interpret and tell the ‘Good News.’ That story is often better understood by those who are outside the typical ‘Christian’ mold. While many expected Blue Like Jazz have as its primary focus, overt religious themes, even giving the answers, I believe the conversation that comes about after the film, the evaluation and search for meaning of the film will allow God to ultimately be the one that does the ‘convicting.’ This way, each person, in their own way, can be touched and think about the messages relating to their own individuality. It is in many ways, just as Jesus used story to generate thought and curiosity, that I believe Blue Like Jazz, even though it isn’t perfect, will lead to perfect, wonderful, thought convicting conversation about the reality of Jesus versus the illusion often presented by religion. Then again, as a note to the reader, I have to make mention as to my conviction of this because I have come to similar conclusions in my own life as a result of God using methods similar to those used in Blue Like Jazz.

I love that the team behind Blue Like Jazz maintained the courage to go outside and beyond the norms of those in their faith community who also make film. Unfortunately, while some are critical of their approach, I happen to believe their approach will result in honest and sincere searches for the truth about God through the evaluation of where ones self is at in the process of that search. While this isn’t a perfect film, it is one that many will likely look back on and see it as a stepping stone for films of its type. I say this because of my own journey in the making of the feature film based on my short. Many have been critical of my book, The Keystone Kid and the short movie, The Long Walk for some of the same reasons they are critical of Blue Like Jazz. I know though the responses and feedback I have received from those outside of my faith as to their appreciation of the honesty in the telling of my story. I know of the same type of feedback Donald Miller, Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson have heard from others regarding their search and enlightenment that has come about from Blue Like Jazz. The Bible isn’t a ‘G,’ ‘PG,” or even ‘PG-13,” book. Some may say that if portrayed as written we would have to give the Bible a ‘NC-17,’ rating. I fall into the realm of those who see the Bible as a ‘NC-17’ story. That doesn’t mean that we have to reveal everything in our telling of story, but just like planting seeds on different types of ground, in different places, for different folks, I am glad the makers of Blue Like Jazz have made a movie for an audience that will appreciate what they see. Personally, I am not concerned with those who think the story can’t or won’t reach those who need to see and experience its story. I believe that if God’s Spirit is capable of reaching murderers, rapists, thugs, the rich, poor and all other kinds of folks we see touched and reached in the Bible, then surely God will, can, and has found a way to use this story to reach people who will relate to its story. I know one person who was touched from it, me, and for that, I am eternally grateful for the work of the crew behind Blue Like Jazz. I unfortunately expect this movie won’t be in the theaters long, it should, it is that good. I do expect it will do very well in the DVD market though, hopefully with a more detailed marketing campaign, using the great press it is getting along with the favorable reviews from those attending the movie itself, we will see that happen, better yet though, a resurgence of word of mouth regarding the movie. Lord knows, there have been other films, not nearly as good that has done well at the box office. Blue Like Jazz deserves the same type of following, I for one, hope it gets it.

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