It’s difficult to write reviews of anything.
First, there’s personal preference. Some folks who like opera might not like country music. Some folks who like intimate clubs might not like the same singer in a basketball arena. Some who like romance novels might not like a spy thriller. You get the idea.
Second, there’s the definition of “good.” I mean, the Ramones could be a good punk band but not excellent musicians. A great horror movie might not have great cinematography or acting. A good beach-read won’t ever be studied in a university setting. You get the idea.
Lastly, there’s the issue of what you expect out of the art. If you’re in the mood for a museum, or an arena-rock concert, or a history book, or whatever, and you get whatever the opposites are of each of those things, you’re likely to be disappointed. If you were hoping to look at a Van Gogh and wound up at the Hard Rock Cafe, it affects your perception of the event.
All of those things come into play when you go see a movie like Blue Like Jazz.
For the uninitiated, the movie is based on Donald Miller’s NYTimes best-seller about his spiritual journey. Like many of us, he began to question his Bible-belt upbringing and wrote a series of essays about that experience. Like many of us, his journey has highs, lows, redemption, unresolved questions, firmly entrenched beliefs reinforced, etc.
Naturally, the movie will have elements of all those things.
The first thing I’d tell you about the movie is that I went in with very low expectations. I mean, let’s be honest. Our Tribe has a long history of absolutely terrible movies. Poorly written. Heavy-handed & preachy. Predictable. What nobody wants to talk about is that these are all made to make money and use the Tribe to get on buses, buy group tickets and make cash but use the guise of “ministry” or “wholesome entertainment” to do it. Often, we’re guilted into going to “support them so they can make more art.” Well, I’ve been burned enough to be wary. You have, too, even if you don’t want to say it out loud.
Thankfully, this was a pleasant surprise. The movie is well-written…so much so that it seems very disciplined to stick to film-school 101. The characters grow and develop. The scenes were filmed well, especially those filmed in Portland. The acting is good, too…especially Don & Penny. The character Lauren is good, too, as is the student who plays the “Pope” of Reed College. Overall, very pleased with the “art” and you won’t have to worry about being “burned” by desire to teach some lesson over creativity/artistic merit.
In fact, some of my favorite moments were because of the art. Subtleties. Like right after Don “betrays” his beliefs, the morning after he’s awakened by a rooster crowing three times. The changes in bumper-sticker slogans in Houston and Portland. The culture changes highlighted on a wall in the student cafe where it’s okay to “come out of the closet” but Don is warned that it’s dangerous to “come out” as a Christian. There really are too many to mention.
The only caution I’d have is to know what you’re getting into if you go. I read the book when it first came out, enjoyed the writing even in disagreement, and even recommended that our church bookstore buy copies in bulk so folks could get their hands on it. What I found was that it made people uncomfortable…asking questions about whether or not it’s important to have political affiliations if you’re Christian, questioning ministry methods of churches, finding absurdities in the Christian subculture, the whole deal. The older people that read it seemed to range from “I don’t get it” to “He’s so negative and too critical of the Church.” But it was all right there in the subtitle: “Non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality.”
The reality is that the book resonated with anyone Gen-X and younger. Don asked the questions we all seemed to be asking in one form or another. In some cases he answered. In some cases they were unresolved (like jazz…get it?). In some cases I think Don answered incorrectly (like the chapter on tithing) and in some cases he hit the nail on the head (like the nature of discipleship in church being information based and centered on disciplines like quiet times rather than life-on-life)…but the ideas certainly get conversation going which is why I think young people ate it up. My students certainly did.
The movie is one that will make you think. In fact, it almost tries too hard to raise questions that you don’t have time to actually do that, and by the time the movie is over, the brain is jumbled with so many things you wanted to remember and couldn’t. There are so many moments I wanted to pause the movie, pour some coffee, and have group discussions with the whole theater. There are a lot of things to take in…just like the book.
So, that’s my advice: Be in the mood to think, and maybe even a little bit offended (and I’m not talking about the cussing, kids, I’m talking about your sensibilities), before you plunk down your $9. Maybe take a note pad. Write down some quotes. Go with friends. Have deep discussion afterward. It’s the kind of movie that will let you do all those things.
And, yes, it’s entertaining along the way, too. Some funny things happen at Reed College (allegedly one of the most anti-Christian universities in the States) and you’ll care about Don, Penny, Lauren and “the Pope” and what happens to them.
But it’s a thinking movie. And thinking is hard work.
Do the work.
You won’t regret it.
And you may learn something about yourself, and your spiritual journey, and what you really believe along the way.
Here’s the trailer to whet your apetite: