After a long, newsworthy, and often controversial journey, the day has finally come. BLUE LIKE JAZZ – The Movie opens today in theaters around the country. As I write this, Rotten Tomatoes has it sitting at a fairly rotten 37%, but that’s no surprise. Despite the filmmaker’s desire for it not to be called a Christian film, they can’t escape the association and therefore can’t hope to be fairly reviewed on the artistic merits of the film. But the real test is how the film will play with moviegoers. That’s going to be a tricky proposition, as the film’s highly realistic portrayal of college life results in language and scenarios that are going to push many Christians way out of their comfort zone. I won’t pretend to know how this will play out, but I do want to offer four observations I’ve been stewing on since viewing the film a few weeks ago:
What they achieved
Frankly, they made a really good movie. The story was engaging, moving, with high stakes and plenty of significant turns. The dialogue was sometimes crass, sometimes sublime, but always well-crafted and true. Especially delightful were the characters, diverse and complex and refreshingly real. The film has tremendous dramatic range, taking you from hysterical laughter in one scene to feeling like you’ve been punched in the stomach the next. Not everything they tried to pull off was a home run, like the recurring alone-in-space motif that felt both forced and unnecessary. But overall, this film holds up solidly against anything like it coming out of Hollywood. And if you want to call it a Christian film, it shows a level of craftsmanship head and shoulders above the vast majority of faith films over the past several years.
What bothered me
The film tells the story of Don, a young man who gets brutally slapped in the face by the hypocrisy and absurdity of the church in which he grew up, and so abandons his faith as he goes to college. Its a story that’s playing out in the real lives of countless students, and all to often the entirety of the blame falls squarely on colleges. This film rightly shows how dysfunctional and irrelevant churches are also to blame. I’m totally with the point they’re making,
but honestly, I think they overshot the mark.
My initial reaction while watching was to take offense – Don’s church felt just like the usual slanted Hollywood portrayal of stupid Christians. My feelings were quickly tempered as I remembered that it only takes a visit to Christian Nightmares to confirm that there really are churches like that. But in a film full of rich, nuanced characterizations, the people in Don’s church are one-dimensional caricatures, nothing more than a bad joke. Later in the film, Don meets a Christian who is actually a real person, and that proves to be the pivotal moment in his journey. But by that point they had so crucified Christians that this hardly felt like a resurrection. The feeling I got was that we weren’t only seeing Don’s wounds at the hands of the church, but perhaps the filmmaker’s as well.
What I loved
I adored precisely what many Christians are going to hate about this film – the honest, compelling, beautiful portrayal of people who are far from Christ, and the lives they live. Faith films are all too often simplistic, black-and-white pictures of “the lost” – either hardened and evil, or broken souls that we all know will come to find Jesus through reciting the sinner’s prayer by the end of the film. But Blue Like Jazz is populated with non-Christians who are smart, funny, and who have darn good reasons not to embrace faith. People who are doing their best to live meaningful lives, to be good friends, and to make a genuine difference in world. From Don’s redneck high-school buddy, to the brazen and sarcastic lesbian who becomes his first college friend, to the charismatic and frenetic college celebrity who daily dresses in pope’s robes, these characters are complex, deep, and even noble. Yes, of course I do believe that all people are desperately in need of Christ. But its so refreshing to watch a film about faith that is bold and honest enough to have compelling non-Christian characters.
And the filmmakers are also honest about how these people live. As I watched Don attend college, I was totally brought back to my own university experience. The situations, the language, and the underlying worldviews and thought processes that drive them are portrayed with realism. Some Christians will argue that in doing so, Blue Like Jazz is glamorizing sin. I completely disagree. If a filmmaker is afraid to paint an honest picture of the lives their characters live, they are robbing their viewers of the truth that the Gospel can reach all people, anytime, anywhere. Yes, this does mean that some people will find parts of the film to be crass and puerile. For most of us, thats college! But its important to note that while the film did realistically portray the lives of people for whom faith is unimportant, it did not do so in a way that caused me to stumble. Despite plenty of sexual themes in the conversations, it never became lascivious, and nothing sexual was ever shown. I feel like they walked that line well.
What I’m hoping for
The church is not going to get behind this film. In fact, I’m sure many church leaders will vocally oppose it. But I’m hoping individual Christians will
embrace it, enjoy it, and recognize it as a great opportunity. This is one of those EXTREMELY rare Christian films that you really could be comfortable bringing a non-Christian friend to. It requires none of the “The acting is bad and the dialogue is corny, but it has a great message” kinds of apologies that we’re so used to giving. And you have two reasons to attend: Not only do you likely have friends and family members who need to see this film, but the filmmakers need your support too. Yes, this is a movie that a non-Christian could stumble upon and be truly touched by – but that kind of thing will be incredibly rare. With terrible ratings and no famous actors leading the cast, the world is not going to be flocking to see this film on its own steam.
So will you be going to this movie? Have you already seen it? Do you love it, or hate it? This is worthy of some conversation, so let me know how you feel in the comments below.
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