With Blue Like Jazz, Steve Taylor takes a provocative and realistic look at Christianity
With Blue Like Jazz, the screen adaptation of Donald Miller's New York Times best-selling book, Steve Taylor has done for film exactly what he did for music in the early to mid-'80s -- namely, give the staid world of Christian-centric art a much needed jolt of vitality. In the same way he riled the buttoned-up Christian community during the Reagan era with incendiary songs like "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good," the Northglenn native, who directed the film and helped pen the screenplay with Miller and Ben Pearson, is bound to once again stir the ire and offend the delicate sensibilities of more thin-skinned believers with this latest project.
Taylor, of course, has a well-established history of being a provocateur. As a musician, Taylor, who studied at the University of Colorado, got his start in the late '70s attending a summer camp run by John Davidson, a long-since-forgotten TV personality from that era, before a breakout performance at a gospel-music seminar in Estes Park led to his signing with Sparrow Records and embarking on a highly influential and often controversial career in Christian music.
With lyrics that frequently spoke to the hypocrisy of Christianity and dealt with shortcomings of the Christian faith, touching on a broad range of taboo topics and issues from infidelity to abortion to TV evangelists, Taylor -- along with a handful of other like-minded acts such as Daniel Amos, led by Terry Taylor (no relation) -- broke considerable artistic ground in the Christian realm.
In the late '80s, when he felt that the music was becoming institutionalized, as he puts it, Taylor moved into the mainstream, forming the band Chagall Guevara with several other like-minded Christian musicians and signing with MCA. When that band came to an end, in the '90s, Taylor founded Squint Entertainment, a label that introduced the world to acts like Sixpence None the Richer, and later moved into filmmaking.
On a quiet Wednesday morning in November 2005, Taylor hosted a private screening at the Colorado Center for his first movie, a disappointing and decidedly underwhelming film called Second Chance, starring contemporary Christian icon and onetime peer Michael W. Smith. Last night in Cherry Creek, Taylor and his co-writers hosted a similar private screening of Blue Like Jazz, his latest film. Compared to his first outing, Taylor has made a marked artistic leap. In fact, the only thing that movie and this one have in common is Jeff Obafemi Carr, the actor who played Jake Bowers in the former and who plays Dean Bowers in the latter.
On hand for last night's screening were local Kickstarter contributors, among the 4,495 people from across the country who helped fund the film, raising nearly $350K in 2010. When the project appeared to be dead in the water a few years ago, a grassroots effort spearheaded by a pair of fans (Zach Prichard and Jonathan Frazier) generated enough support and interest to ensure that the film received the funding it needed to be completed.
Those generous contributions allowed Taylor and company to produce a notably edgy film -- at least by Christian standards -- that serves as a thought-provoking reflection on modern Christian faith. The language used is rather crass. While the dialogue only contains two of the infamous seven dirty words and would hardly make most readers of this fishwrap bat an eye, it is about half a syllable away from earning an R rating, rather than its present PG-13, which it earned for "thematic material, sexuality, drug and alcohol content and some language."
The "thematic material" mentioned above refers to very adult situations depicted in the movie dealing with everything from infidelity to homosexuality to sexual abuse in the church, among other firebrand issues. And while this, coupled with the course language, is likely to offend more puritan sensibilities, you can also argue that it's a reflection of the way that people actually talk. According to the filmmakers, Blue Like Jazz, which isn't even slated to hit theaters until the weekend of April 13, has already drawn criticism from certain members of the Christian community.
"An executive pastor at a church, nine months ago, before the movie was even done, issued what essentially amounted to a fatwa against Blue Like Jazz, saying 'If anybody works on Blue Like Jazz, they are never working with us,'" Taylor said last night of an influential member of the current Christian movie establishment during the post-film Q&A session. "There were different marketing companies and even some of the producers I work with, that I'd worked with before, and they just said they put the word out: 'If you work with them, you're not working with us.' We had people who would've otherwise worked with us that couldn't because they didn't want to lose that business.
"Even last week, the distributor -- by the way, I thought that was highly ironic that the pastor, for some reason, had an issue with Blue Like Jazz, but he had no issue with his distributor, Sony, who put out the DaVinci Code, as if, you know, what we're doing is somehow worse, than, what, heresy," he continued. "And then the marketing head of Provident Films -- actually, somebody had forwarded me an e-mail where she had actually sent out word to theaters: 'There's a movie opening next weekend called October Baby...' which is a pro-life movie. I applaud the movie; I haven't seen it yet, but it looks really interesting. I've got some friends who are in it, so I'm looking forward to seeing it. But she put out word that, under no circumstances should the Blue Like Jazz trailer be played in front of this movie. And then she claimed that our trailer said, 'I hate Jesus," which is a complete fabrication, and said that audiences would be offended, and essentially did the same thing. What is it about the Christian movie industry that's now become so calcified and so rigid that this movie's a threat to them?"
Suffice it to say, if you're looking for a sanitized snapshot of spirituality, this is not it. Just the same, as Steven James recently asserted in a piece for CNN.com, "The Bible is a gritty book. Very raw. Very real. It deals with people just like us, just as needy and screwed up as we are, encountering a God who would rather die than spend eternity without them." What's more, you get the sense that this movie wasn't necessarily made for the type of audience that is only willing to drink milk from a Christian cow, as some cynic once put it.
Rather, Blue Like Jazz aims to take a real-world look at modern spirituality through an unfiltered lens. And that's exactly what it does. The fact that the themes of the movie and their presentation are considered provocative, well, that should hardly comes as a surprise to anybody. After all, could you honestly expect otherwise from Taylor, a guy who once wrote a pop song from the perspective of an ice cream man blowing up abortion clinics on the premise that it was cutting into his business?
Page down to read more about Blue Like Jazz, the movie. Before you click, please note: contains some plot details, as well as a few spoilers.
Don't let the cute costume fool you. This bear is a thief.
While Blue Like Jazz, the movie, aims to embody the spirit of Miller's book, Taylor, Pearson and Miller took some creative license and fictionalized a good bit of the narrative to help the story translate better in this medium. Although Blue Like Jazz ends up being an exceptional movie with moments of dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin, it starts off tediously slow. In fact, for the first five minutes or so, you'd be excused for thinking, "Oh, man, here we go, another homogenized, hamfisted, after-school worthy special."
In the opening scenes, we find the movie's central character, Don Miller (Marshall Allman), finishing up work in a Laverne and Shirley-like factory (only substitute beer for wine), idly chatting up a knuckle-dragging co-worker named Jordan (Will McKinney) who attempts to get cheap laugh by placing a spittoon filled with his chew on the conveyor belt next to other cups filled with wine. Incredulous, Miller tries to intervene to no avail.
In the next scene, we see the two chopping it up at their lockers, with Miller's cretinous pal ribbing him about his mom ("She's not cheating on me, is she?") and then lobbying him to come to a party where there will be chicks, he promises, an invitation Miller declines because he has other plans. Those plans, it turns out, involve him co-chaperoning a lock-in for his church's youth group with Kenny (Jason Marsden), the youth pastor (more on him in a minute).
And that's exactly as enthralling as it sounds, as are the next few scenes in which we see the picture-perfect Miller doting on his dearly beloved single-mother (Jenny Littleton), telling her he'll take the first shower so she can sleep a little longer, and then calling her for breakfast. In between, he intercepts a message from a male caller serenading her on the answering machine in shoddy Spanish, which gives him pause and sends him peering out the window suspiciously at the gardener before deleting the message.
Next, we find young Miller visiting his freewheeling father (Eric Lange), who's drinking a beer and grilling burgers outside an Airstream trailer. In between busting Miller's stones about his Christian faith ("You want a beer? I promise I won't tell Jesus") and extolling the virtues of A Love Supreme by Coltrane, his dad informs him that he's "pulled some strings" and enrolled him at Reed College in Oregon -- noting that the average IQ of the students is two points higher than genius level, and that it's cheaper to send him there than having him kidnapped and deprogrammed. Never mind the fact that Miller is already enrolled at Trinity Baptist.
Miller's father goes on to make a jab about him choosing Trinity in an effort to please his religious mother. Miller responds to his father's barbs and disparaging remarks about his mother by pointing out that while his dad was busy dodging child support, the church was looked after Miller and his mother by buying them groceries. Miller's father clearly has a pronounced disdain for Miller's mother and her religion, and in the next few scenes, it's not hard to see why.
Jason Marsden as Kenny, the loathsome youth pastor.
In what proves to be a pivotal scene -- and an awkward sequence worthy of Mike Judge circa Extract -- we find Miller in the sanctuary of his church clad, quite literally, in the full armor of god (breast plate of righteousness, helmet of salvation, etc.). He's presumably being christened as he prepares to head off to college. As he's about to leave the stage, Kenny, the detestable youth pastor (a smarmy character that resembles a cross between Kip and Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite) beckons him to linger, while he calls all the kids in the church up and then inexplicably launches into a racially-insensitive analogy involving Mexican marionettes and a cross-shaped pinata.
At Kenny's behest, Miller uses his "sword of the spirit" to split the pinata, sending what appears to be coffee creamers onto the floor. In an attempt to explain why the pinata didn't contain candy as expected, Kenny draws some sort of convoluted parallel to Christ dying on the cross. Somewhere amidst all of this, Kenny sings a ditty about the puppets wanting to be friends with Jesus. It's at this moment that Miller recognizes the ditty -- it's the same voice, inflection and melody as the message left on his mom's answering machine -- and he comes to the grim realization that his mom is sleeping with the youth pastor. The married youth pastor, mind you.
Incensed, Miller storms out of the church, tosses the plastic armor into the trunk of his car, and grabs a tire iron and begins trying to bludgeon Kenny's SUV. Trying is the key word here: Comically, the windows don't break, and he ends up just ripping the plastic bumper off in frustration. Just then, his mom appears and urges him to get a hold of himself. This proves to be the catalytic event that alters the course of young Miller's path and sends him on a hedonistic descent of self-discovery in the Pacific Northwest.
This is precisely the moment when the movie gets its legs. Taylor's finger prints are all over the movie from this point on. As Miller struggles to find himself at Reed College and gradually ends up abandoning his faith altogether, we're treated to a succession of absurd and memorable sequences, from a scene in which Miller's tall bike gets jacked and ultimately thrown off a bridge by somebody in a bear costume to a protest scene in a bookstore in which Miller is dressed in an astronaut's costume.
Also, don't miss the scenes involving Miller scaling a billboard with Penny (Claire Holt, more on her in a minute), a fellow member of a civil disobedience club, and changing the slogan of a bottled water company (Aqua Like) from "Swallow for Bliss" to "Swallow Goat Piss." Equally as noteworthy: the Pope of Reed College (Justin Welborn), strolling through the campus on his bullshit bookmobile (a bike affixed to a shopping cart filled with offending books he's collected from the student body that he periodically sets ablaze), or, our personal favorite, Miller walking by a nativity scene with a missing baby Jesus next to a hand-scrawled sign that reads: "Put Christ back in Christmas (no questions asked)."
Just as the moments of absurdity are plentiful throughout the movie, the dialogue is dependably sharp, and at times has an almost lyrical rhythm; the pacing is deliberate and believable. As the movie edges towards its natural conclusion -- Miller's coming-to-Jesus moment, if you will -- his character is developed admirably through humorous and poignant interactions with a variety of disparate characters, including, most notably, Penny, his virtuous crush.
Over the course of the movie, he goes from first meeting the affable activist in the commons area of the campus to randily propositioning her after the robot invasion at the bookstore -- quipping "I can help you with your box" -- to having a tender heart-to-heart with her in which she confides to him that her favorite memory from her childhood is of her delusional mom (before she was institutionalized) to combing through her hair in search of hidden bugs planted by the government. There's a palpable tension between the two ("You're so good I guess you can't help making people feel like shit," Miller says, to which she later responds, "I'm going to be working in a refugee camp -- I'm sorry if that makes you feel like shit") that eventually leads to Miller's spiritual awakening.
Elsewhere, the best exchanges happen between Miller and the Pope, who essentially causes Miller to examine and question his faith. In one scene, the Pope attempts to pour cold water on Miller's infatuation with Penny, pointing out that his previous dorm-mate was a "Rhodes scholar, tall biker, looked like Jeff Buckley...If he couldn't bag that no one can." A bit later, as the two hatch a plan to pull a prank at a nearby church that involves draping a super-sized condom over the steeple with an accompanying sign that reads, "Don't Let These People Reproduce," the Pope notes that behind every steeple is a sleeper cell. "They smile, they shake your hand, and then you're drinking the Kool-Aid."
Alas, there are some sections that seem superfluous, with incidental characters who neither seem to advance the storyline nor enhance character development, including Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), Miller's acid-tongued lesbian friend, who cries on his shoulder when she learns that her crush is actually straight, and the aforementioned Jordan, his friend from the factory, who drops in unexpectedly on Miller on Christmas Eve.
In a semi-convoluted twist, Jordan explains that he was fired from the factory when his prank was unearthed, and a nun in Canada unwittingly ingested his juicy surprise and ended up getting sick. Somehow, Jordan evidently ended up speaking with her and comes to the conclusion that he shouldn't "shit where he eats." The scene ends with Miller declining to accompany him to mass to give "Jesus a holler," as he puts it, followed by Jordan eloquently informing him that he's heading up Canada to visit the nun and "help the retards."
Those sequences, while slightly amusing, are the main missteps. Fortunately, they don't screw with the pacing, and before the film's dramatic conclusion -- which we won't spoil for you here -- there are a number of other memorable scenes to make up for the brief digressions, such as when Miller's mom phones with news that she's pregnant with the youth pastor's kid and a scene in which Miller ends up trapped in a port-a-potty after a night of indulging at the college's annual "Ren Faire," a night of pure hedonism that is evidently based on actual experiences at Reed.
All in all, Taylor and company have successfully delivered a layered dramady that's worth seeing. While some of the characters at times border on becoming caricatures, overall the film is well-acted and a notable sense of humanity is weaved through the story. And the soundtrack, which features songs from Menomena and Nashville-by-way-Denver transplant Katie Herzig, among others, is also pretty swell. The underlying message -- if there is one -- seems to summed up with what Penny says to Miller when she attempts to provide him with some perspective on his estranged relationship with his mother: "People are human. People are flawed. We all have our crap."
"I think this film is incredibly accurate," said Donald Miller during the Q&A. "We will get criticized for...everything I do I get criticized for criticizing the church. We have one shady Christian character in the whole movie, Kenny. Everybody else is totally understandable and redemptive. Even the church that Penny goes to is completely redemptive, really a beautiful place. The pastor reaches into the port-a-potty.
"But we will still get criticized for not saying that Christians are perfect," he continued. "And I just think, 'You've got your -- pardon, me -- you've got your head up your ass. Because you're not, and I'm not. Like if you'd like to meet a Christian...if you haven't met a Christian who's a hypocrite, let's hang out afterward, because I am one, and you can meet me. And then you can never say we're all perfect again, 'cause I'll show you all kinds of things."
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