Thursday, April 05, 2012

Blue Like Jazz: a Film Review

The Steve Taylor film Blue Like Jazz is based on Donald Miller's book of the same title.  The story of the film is of a young man between worlds coming of age.  Don is between the world of Jazz and a world of the the Southern Baptist church. Caught between a world of freedom of his morally questionable father and the constrained world of faith of his mother.  One world he thought he belonged in but as he is about to go to college is showing flaws and appears a bit superficial, a facade hiding hypocrisy and sin underneath its clean and upright exterior.

Don heads to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, feeling betrayed, choosing to go to the Reed that his father want's him to go to rather than the Baptist college, that is already too liberal for the youth pastor at Don's Church.  Once at Reed the cracks in his faith are opened further , he explores new values, mores, and beliefs while hiding his Baptist and Christian upbringing.  He hides his former life in the Baptist church at home and enters fully into the intellectual climate of Reed, searching for his place in a world  idealism, intellectual search, activism, and questioning of the world.

We meet a number of quirky, real, and lovable characters in the film, including Don who is mostly trying to find his place, to fit in.  In the process of settling into college, hidding his Christianity that he already began to question, he falls a woman who is an activist.  Much of the story revolves around Don's various misses in attempting to get to know and have a relationship with Penny.  Penny also has a number of secrets, and Don stumbles over them, though this isn't a boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy gets girl in the end film. In pursuit of Penny Don must face his faith and background.  Any new found identity can't resolve around mere hiding from his very recent past.  One may say it is a film about boy has faith, boy looses faith, boy finds faith again, all wrapped up in a story of a boy's search for identity and belonging.

The film is beautiful, but not stunning. Over the course of the film the light becomes bluer, being the whitest and most sterile as we begin in the stark conflict between his divorced parents, as each attempts to pull him into their worlds. The setting and shots reinforced and supported the action, emotions and interactions of the characters of the film.  A miss visually for me were the space/astronaut scenes.  At moments in the film we see Don in astronaut suit floating in space above the earth, which was odd and slightly distracting. On one hand  it was a little too blatant a metaphor, and except for the Huston association no reason for that metaphor to work with the story.  And unfortunately this was the only way we were made to visualize Don's state of mind, but it was the weakest part of the film, and for its visual impact added little to the film itself.  The story could have been told without the space scenes and little would change, except that the film might be a little shorter.

I would have found it more compelling had more been done visually with John Coltrane's album Love Supreme.  It's link to Don was established from very early in the film and the album and song reappear several times.  Coltrane and Love Supreme are is woven throughout the film and we hear portions of the album at key points of the film.  Oddly enough, I for a film with Jazz in the Title, the Jazz thread was mostly hidden from view.  This is disappointing Coltrane is important but his importance is left as mere back drop, allowed to bubble up to the surface a couple of times, but Jazz remains background music at best.

Over all though, it is a good if tame coming of age film.  While the tameness of the film is in part that the makers of the film aimed for a PG 13 rating, it is also tame for this isn't a story of sexual awakening, but of other awakenings, that may include the sexual.  In this alone it is probably worth seeing: a story of awakening to oneself that is more than sexual, that is about ones full and truly human self in a confusing world of suffering, injustice, pettiness and hypocrisy. It is a story that needs to be told more often.