Movie Review: Blue Like Jazz

By | April 15, 2012

Heavy. It’s the word that keeps coming to mind when I think about Blue Like Jazz. Blue Like Jazz tackles subjects which ironically both Christians and non-Christians alike want to avoid. Christians typically don’t want to talk about doubts about God and the sins of those who claim to be Christian, as though to do so would be blasphemous. On the flip side, many non-Christians aren’t open to seriously discussing Christianity as Blue Like Jazz does. The Christians have made up their mind that they’re right and non-Christians are convinced that the Christians are bad. Blue Like Jazz falls into the middle, hoping to be bridge the divide and open the dialog between these two sides.

It would be difficult for me to call Blue Like Jazz a Christian movie in the sense that it’s targeted to a Christian audience. It seems no more suited to a Christian audience that to any other. It fits right in with numerous other independent films which take an honest look at some aspect of life. There is a lesbian, drinking, cussing, and references to drugs and sex. I was actually surprised by some of the content, mainly because I don’t remember these things being in the book, though I’m sure they’re true to real life. Ironically, some of the things only discussed in Blue Like Jazz seemed more shocking than when they’re actually portrayed in other films. I think this is because Blue Like Jazz is so real and honest. Other movies are easier to dismiss as fiction, but Blue Like Jazz is uncomfortably real (and based on the author’s own life).

Plot Overview

Don, the primary character in the film, grew up Southern Baptist. He was very involved in church and the youth group. However, right before he graduated from high school, he suspects that his mom (who is divorced) is having an affair with the youth pastor, a married man. He is infuriated and decides to go to a very liberal college instead of the Baptist school he had been planning to attend. This is in part encouraged by his dad who tells him, “You only believe that stuff (Christianity) because you’re afraid to hang out with people who don’t.”

Upon arrival, Don is told that it is OK to be just about anything but Christian. It’s obvious he is confused and out of place. Disillusioned by his family, it’s not difficult for Don to ditch the unaccepted Christianity he feels had suckered him. Unfortunately, Don has no real substance at this point. He joins in protesting things without understanding why he is protesting (in apparent contrast to many of the other students). He tries to do whatever he can to fit in.

Don becomes attracted to a girl named Penny, who turns out to be the heroine of the movie. While Don is doing things for no reason other than to be accepted, Penny has depth. She protests and supports causes because she actually cares about the effect these things have on people. She also begins to become a follower of Jesus after reading through the bible for one of her classes. She actually stands for what she believes, as opposed to Don who doesn’t seem to even know what to believe. When Penny learns about Don’s mom, she encourages him to talk to her. Don doesn’t want anything to do with his mom after she confesses to him that she is pregnant with the youth minister’s baby. But Penny shares her regret of abandoning her own mom.

At certain points in the movie, Don is depicted as an astronaut floating untethered above the earth. This certainly symbolizes the ungroundedness he is experiencing. The climax of the movie has Penny (who is tethered to a nearby space station) reach out and grab Don’s hand. She saves him from floating away into nothing forever.

Through Penny Don begins to deal with his upbringing, family, and God. He recognizes that he has been a coward and hasn’t stood for anything. And he decides that, despite all the problems, he does still believe in Jesus.

At the end of the movie, Don is selected to be the “pope”, a pseudo-religious character which accepts confessions at Renn Fayre, the school’s annual crazy party. However, rather than accepting confessions, Don begins to confess to others, asking for forgiveness for his own shallowness and hypocrisy, for hating people rather than loving people as Jesus instructed, and for the sins done in the name of Christianity.

I didn’t grow up Southern Baptist, but very close to it. The church I grew up in (East 91st St. Christian Church) was a conservative, evangelical church in the same camp as the Southern Baptists. Many of the activities in Blue Like Jazz are the kind of things that conservative Christians don’t talk about (at least not outside of condemning them from a distance). I don’t know exactly why this is, or even whether it’s good or bad. But whether we talk about it or not, they’re things that many people in the world encounter. In fact, if we’re honest, they’re things which most conservative Christians have encountered in their lives as well.

I was never one to run away from my faith—at least not totally. I—thankfully—have a very good family, and this has made a bigger difference than anything. But even so, I wrestled a lot with what I believed about God and church and Christianity. I ran into numerous experiences and people in life which didn’t fit inside the conservative Christian box. I have rejected a lot of the religious beliefs I grew up with. In this way, Blue Like Jazz deals with subjects which everyone in our culture has to face: Is there a God? If so, what kind of God is he? Why is life different than what I expected and was told it would be? What do I believe? It seems like everyone should be able to relate on some level.

Christian media is mainly known for being “inspirational”. The impression this genre gives is that whatever bad happens is an aberration and not normal. What is normal is peace and love and happiness. While there may be something bad which happens, everything wraps up nice and neatly in end. There are many people out there whom are encouraged by this. In the face of the difficulties of life, they want to be reassured that things aren’t meaningless and will work out for good. They hold onto this hope and belief in the face a reality that seems to say otherwise. I don’t want to insult these people. If this is you, that’s fine.

But for many of us the inspirational genre seems out of touch with real life. We approach the difficult questions of life differently. We want to be honest about the questions we face. We want to know why there is so much wrong in the world. When all Christianity seems to offer is “just believe despite the evidence—and don’t ask questions”, it’s no wonder people feel Christianity gets in the way of their search for answers.

Blue Like Jazz offers hope, but not in a traditional “inspirational” way. Most of the problems aren’t fixed by the end of the movie. But what has happened is that Don has begun to come to terms with life and is deciding to start loving people rather than being part of the problem. He demonstrates that, though there is pain, difficulties, sin, and misguided religion in the world, one can still have faith and make a difference for the better.

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  • Ron

    I did not grow up on this kind of culture. In fact it was the antithesis of the stereotype, but I have experienced the effects of “believers” because I did not toe the line of what a “christian” is. you know? as long as you believe in a god you can behave however you want as opposed to those who do the same thing but do not believe in god. well, they’re just amoral. riiiight.

  • It’s an interesting movie and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I think (I’ve seen it three times now). This is made more difficult because of my close proximity in that I promoted it based on being a fan of director Steve Taylor. It basically ends up being a story of a guy dealing with the disillusionment when faced with the fact that the conservative Christian culture with which he grew up doesn’t reflect reality. That’s a story I and at least some other people can relate to. There really isn’t much of a primary message or take away beyond that, which no doubt bothers many Christians, even me to an extent. There are secondary positive messages in Penny’s compassion and in how Don eventually reconciles his belief in Jesus with the realities of life. I do like the confessional scene at the end (Steve Taylor said that this is what made him want to make the movie). However in trying so hard to make the rest of the script a good story for film, I wonder if something else was lost.