Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Blue Like Jazz. The Movie. April 13th!

My friend Michele and I had the chance to see a pre-screening of Blue Like Jazz on Monday. We also got to meet Donald Miller, Steve Taylor (director) and Marshall Allman (plays Donald Miller in the film). They held a Q&A after the film, and it was interesting to hear their stories about creating and producing the film.

Donald Miller-author of Blue Like Jazz
When I read the book, Blue Like Jazz in 2003, I immediately loved Miller's humor and honesty in sharing his spiritual journey. I felt it fully deserved its 40 plus weeks on the National Bestseller List. In 2009 I read A Million Miles in A Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. In this book, Miller shares a lot about writing the script for Blue Like Jazz, and I loved this book even more than his prior two. It was one of those "laugh-out-loud, then ugly cry, then laugh again" books for me. If you haven't read either book, and you want to see the movie, "A Million Miles", would be great to read first.

Steve Taylor and Marshall Allman

The film is a comedy about young Donald Miller (Marshall Allman) who had grown up Southern-Baptist in Texas, and decides to attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon his freshman year. He is wanting to escape his sub-culture, his family issues, and God Himself. Reed College is the perfect setting for the escape he's seeking. Reed  has actually been called "the most godless campus in the U.S."  The story progresses as he navigates making friends and getting involved on campus, all the while quietly dealing with his existential  questions.

I believe the first way to ruin a potentially good story, in literature or film, is to make it "message heavy". To make a message the priority over the story structure, character development, or other important elements, is damaging to the story's integrity. It makes it preachy and awkward and I can't even stand it. I never felt any sermonizing from this film. The creators of the film don't call Blue Like Jazz a "Christian Movie", but rather a movie about a Christian. The story succeeded in telling an entertaining story about a conflicted student, and how he deals with the conflict.

For me, if watching movies that are adapted from books is a hobby, I claim that as one of mine! I love how each medium can work together to tell the story, each with different strengths--all the better if the film adaptation makes a lot of changes! I enjoy reading the book first, then seeing the movie and visa-versa. Even though much of the content from the book was altered to fit the movie, it worked. An excerpt from "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" perfectly sums up the need to alter the book for film:

"Let me put this another way," Steve said. "While you've written a good book, thoughts don't translate onto the screen very well. The audience can't get inside your head like they can in a book. They will be restless. They won't engage. Trying to be true to the book is like asking people to read your mind. A story has to move in real life and real time. It's all about action."
"You think they might be bored if we just show my life the way it is," I clarified. I guess I was asking for reassurance that my life was okay. "I think they'd stab each other in the necks with drinking straws," Steve said. 

One element I love most about the art of film is the acting--it's a deal-breaker for me if the acting doesn't measure up. I have much respect for actors who can pull off a convincing performance, since I can't even control my facial expressions or express emotion in appropriate ways in normal life! (Don't argue with me on this point, friends.) I love how an actor can add nuance to the emotion in a story that I sometimes don't imagine when I'm reading--even sometimes in brilliantly written stories. I felt each performance by the main characters in Blue Like Jazz was excellent. Each character was richly portrayed by the actors.

I'm happy to say this movie was not message heavy, but a vivid portrayal of a college student's life, even though heavily altered and adapted from book form. Steve Taylor said they took full advantage of their PG-13 rating to attempt a realistic portrayal of the culture at Reed College. They wanted to walk the line between honest storytelling and gratuitousness. Personally, I think they did a good job. Just don't take your kids unless you want them to learn some early lessons about drinking, drugs, sexuality, civil disobedience and almost-naked marching bands.

One creative choice the filmmakers made was to bring some of the cartoon elements from the book into the movie. If you've read the book, remember the sexy carrot? Yes, she's in the movie. Weird. I think they could have pulled off some of the cartoony-ness if they had the budget for quality CG effects, but instead they give you some awkward moments that made me cringe a little. Considering this is the only weakness that stood out to me, I really enjoyed the movie overall and feel it artfully tells Don's story with strong themes of love, friendship, and forgiveness. I hope they have much success when they open in select cities April 13th! I'm actually slightly insanely curious about how this film will be received!

If you're a big fan of the book and want the movie in your city, visit the Blue Like Jazz website to find out how you can get it there! 

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