"Blue Like Jazz," a film based on Donald Miller's semi-autobiographical book which opened in select theaters this past weekend, isn't a typical Christian film. In fact, even though faith is its dominant theme, director Steve Taylor says it isn't a Christian film at all.
"We're a movie made by Christians ... but we don't like it tagged as a Christian movie," Taylor told The Christian Post on Tuesday. Movie critics made the same conclusion, saying the film is indeed not like a Christian film at all (Read reviews here and here).
The film follows Don, a young, smart, Southern Baptist from Texas who becomes disillusioned with the faith after his Christian mother has an affair with the married youth pastor of their church. In his anger, Don leaves his home and goes to Portland, Oregon, where he takes classes at Reed College – an exceptionally liberal, overly sexual and decidedly anti-Christian institution where he begins to disown God and question His existence altogether.
Taylor says he first read Blue Like Jazz six years ago while he was looking for a new film project to work on, and knew that many people could relate to its story. As the son of a Baptist minister, Taylor also found it difficult to adapt to his environment when he left home to attend school at the University of Colorado Boulder.
"You have to make decisions, and one of those decisions is, with all of these competing agendas and philosophies coming at you from all different directions, are you going to hang on to your Christian faith, or are you going to reject it? Whatever happens, if you hang on to it you're going to have to make it your own," he said.
Characters in the film include a person who dresses like the Pope, a lesbian who urinates into a men's urinal and a bear mascot that steals Don's bicycle and throws it into a river. The scenarios in the film that occur at Reed College are unusual, but Taylor says they aren't that far from the real thing.
"It was amusing to us, but it was all based on reality. I spent a lot of time at Reed College, and it's hard to believe when you watch the movie, but we actually really toned-down the Reed College experience."
Once the film was completed, the filmmakers decided to do a special screening for Reed College students in spite of the opposition they anticipated.
"I have never been more nervous about anything professionally in my life," said Taylor. Some people told him afterward that they attended the screening only to hate on the film, but by the end those same people said it was well done.
"Some people got really offended and walked out. Others left and got high and then came back ... it was a wild experience, but by the end it got a really long ovation," said Taylor.
One reason why the book was so successful, Taylor says, was because it challenged the way Christianity has become connected with other philosophies, such as Americanism, patriotism, capitalism, Republican ideologies and more. The result has been that some people, especially young people, have become tired of hearing that they must follow certain agendas in order to be a Christian.
That's why the main character in the film goes "into the closet" about his upbringing as a Christian once he begins attending classes at the college.
"Being ashamed of ... goofy aspects of the Christian subculture can sometimes then crossover into being ashamed of Jesus before you even realize it," said Taylor.
For a faith-based film, "Blue Like Jazz" takes a unique approach. It is full of cussing and references to drugs and sexuality, and it seems like the main character has a beer in his hand during nearly every scene. Taylor says he's not opposed to the "safe for the whole family" type of movie that the Christian film industry has been producing lately, but he doesn't think all faith-based films should be measured by whether or not they are family-friendly.
"If you decided to do a family-friendly version of the Bible, you would end up with a much shorter book," he commented.
Blue Like Jazz the book has sold over 1.5 million copies and spent 43 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, yet when it was time to create the movie version its makers struggled to raise enough funds.
In the fall of 2010, Donald Miller wrote on his blog that the movie wouldn't be created due to financial constraints, which created a flood of support from fans of the book. In just 30 days, nearly 4,500 supporters pledged $346,000 to aid the fledgling film, and, with the support of other investors, it was successfully created.
According to Box Office Mojo, "Blue Like Jazz" ranked 20th on the list of top-grossing films on its opening weekend this past week, bringing in a total of nearly $259,000 in 136 different theaters.