Blue Like Jazz (2012)

Starring: Marshall Allman, Claire Holt, Tania Raymonde, Jason Marsden, Justin Welborn, Jenson Goins, Jenny Littleton, Natalia Dyer, Eric Lange, Wendy Keeling, Will McKinney, Scott Kerr.

Director: Steve Taylor
Rating: PG-13 (for violence and action sequences.)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Date: April 13, 2012
Home Video Release Date: August 7, 2012
North American Box Office: $595 Thousand

Ruckus Films and Roadside Attractions.

Written by: Donald Miller, Ben Pearson, and Steve Taylor; adapted from the novel “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller.

★★1/2 (out of 5 stars)

After years of trying to bring his semi-auto biographical novel to the big screen, Donald Miller saw his Blue Like Jazz book project nearly reach an untimely death midway through production.  A couple of producers bailed on the project, leaving Miller high and dry.  In a sign of the social media world we live in, MIller, the remaining producers, and fans of his book took to Kickstarter, a fund-raising website where donors can select projects they wish to support with a financial donation.  After a huge and tireless push via the Kickstarter website, Miller and the producers saw their project get rescued by the internet culture.  Blue Like Jazz was eventually completed and influential indie studio Roadside Attractions picked the film up for distribution.  Quite the remarkable story, no?

That story, and the seemingly good heart which permeates through the book and film, makes disliking Blue Like Jazz akin to playing a joke you thought was harmless on a toddler and having them break down and cry about it for hours.  You feel like a jerk, you want to apologize and try to remedy the results of your actions.  Watching Blue Like Jazz fall apart in front of me was not a joy to watch.  I wanted to give back the toy or cookie I took from that metaphorical baby and/or undo the little prank I played.  I wanted to make things good with Steve Taylor’s film but alas, some things just are not meant to be, are they?

Blue Like Jazz is the story of Donald Miller’s transition from The Bible Belt to a progressive, liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon.  Attending the fairly well-known Reed College for a writing program, Miller documented his experiences and his attempts to balance his faith and religious beliefs with the new ideas and worldview Portland offered him.  His book became a cult hit and the film should provide a corollary journey.  Steve Taylor, co-screenwriter and director tries to nail the same connections and feelings found in the source material.  The young, fresh faces in the ensemble are up for the challenge, but that pesky screenplay by Miller, Taylor, and Ben Pearson runs out of things to say at about the midway point and then belabors essentially the same messages over and over again.

Independent films carry a stigma with them, especially quirky dramedies with young casts.  Blue Like Jazz never steps away from those cliches and keeps viewers at a considerable distance.  Marshall Allman (True Blood) is quite likable and appropriately bleary-eyed as Donald Miller, open and eventually quite accepting of what is happening around him in this new world.  Initially, the bizarre cast of characters seems fresh and unique, including the college’s self-anointed Pope (Justin Welborn), and two girls who impact Donald’s life in distinctive ways, Lauryn (Tania Raymonde) and Penny (Claire Holt).  

Over time though, the characters never develop any real depth and Blue Like Jazz becomes nothing more than essentially a series of loosely linked vignettes, all which rob the film of its emotional resonance.  Blue Like Jazz is a great title and a film with that branding implies spontaneity, unpredictability, originality, and something you may remember for a long time to come.  Sadly, Blue Like Jazz may be watchable, may raise some interesting ideas about tolerance and geographical theology, but never takes a risk.  Rather, it settles for safe and familiar.  With an eager young cast, not given much more than quirky caricatures to embody, Blue Like Jazz simply plays a familiar beat until eventually you tune out, get distracted, and/or move on to something else.

I simply stopped hearing Blue Like Jazz.

  • Fans of the book and/or those aware of the Kickstarter project will seek this out.
  • The young cast and their performances are quite good and the problems with the film come from a directorial/screenwriting place and not with the ensemble cast.
  • With Portland, Oregon culture being “hip”, a lot of the locations and sights will seem timely and Pacific Northwest residents will be glad to see some old haunts on the screen.
  • By the one-hour mark and certainly by the end, most people will feel that this is just.  another.  indie.  movie..
  • Instantly forgettable, the screenplay does little, if anything, to make these characters multi-dimensional people you care about.

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