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Blue Like Jazz: The Movie

A few years back, Donald Miller’s reflective spiritual memoir Blue Like Jazz was the book every young-ish “contemporary” Christian was reading, talking about or wanting to have read. The book spent months on the bestseller lists and inspired a new way of talking and writing about faith and spirituality. It was a major publishing success—so someone had the idea of turning it into a movie.

This raised two challenges: adapting a well-loved devotional memoir to a cinematic story, at the same time as working with the limitations and expectations of “Christian” filmmaking. Don Miller teamed up with Christian musician and filmmaker Steve Taylor to take on these challenges, supported by a grassroots movement to fund the project when it seemed it might fall at this hurdle.

Nearing the end of the story behind the film of the story behind the book, I had the chance to see a preview screening of the Blue Like Jazz movie in its hometown of Portland, hosted by Don Miller in February. It will be released In the US at selected cinemas on April 13.

As far as adapting the book into a cinematic story, Miller reflected on aspects of that process in his 2009 book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Life is never as neat as a film script and neither is Miller’s original book. The common complaint is that movie adaptions are never as good as the book but Blue Like Jazz (the movie) is so adapted as to be best considered as separate work of creativity.

Yet those who loved the book—and among these is a friend of mine who recently told me she has read the book three times and it has been a significant source of spiritual revitalisation for her—will resonate with the movie. The characters who were just voices in the book become people in the movie, and many of the big ideas of the book are woven successfully into the movie’s story. But it is the story itself that is the most significant addition, to some extent borrowing snippets from Miller’s other books and his own life story.

Where Blue Like Jazz (the book) was a book of reflections, offering some insights and answers, the movie is more about questions. And they are the big questions—the existence of God, pain and suffering, the disappointments of church and religion, and what it might mean to be a believer in a secular environment. Filled with the tension of such questions, the movie avoids being too clever and should provoke healthy post-viewing conversations. In its movie format, Blue Like Jazz concludes with one of the most quoted and commented upon scenes from the book, which is personalised to the central character more than in its original telling and powerfully portrayed.

But the movie is not without its own questions. One of the puzzling inconsistencies of the movie is that protests against the inhumane and unsustainable practices—with creative actions against a “corporate” bookshop and a billboard for bottled water—are applauded, while a protest against a church’s questionable stance is considered to be going “too far.” The viewer can understand the awkwardness that this protest creates but should some protesting be off limits, if similar actions are otherwise encouraged?

And this is linked to how Blue Like Jazz fits as a “Christian movie.” How far is too far in exploring the central premise of the movie about how a reluctant and runaway Christian relates to an extremely secular context? The movie is not G-rated or “family friendly.” Thus, it is attempting to overcome the classic conundrum for Christian artists searching for credibility: is it too secular for Christian audiences and too Christian for secular audiences, falling between these two “markets”? This is not just about box office success, it is also about how the film has been made and presented.

As a work of art, Blue Like Jazz (the movie) finds a good balance. Although the preview screening was not the final print of the film, it is obvious it had been made well, with a carefully crafted script and high production values. It never looks or feels like a cheesy Christian movie, except when it is portraying cheesy Christianity. It doesn’t fall for easy answers and it doesn’t flinch at making its potential audiences—Christian and secular—feel uncomfortable.

Like the book, Blue Like Jazz (the movie) gives its audience/s plenty to think about—although it remains to be seen which of these will choose to see it. But in daring to talk about faith in such complicated contexts, its writers, creators and supporters have taken on a worthwhile task, hopefully inventing or re-inventing a genre that other artists and storytellers with worthwhile things to say can build on.

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