“Life is like jazz; it never resolves.”
This is the driving concept behind the film Blue Like Jazz, now playing in theaters.
The film, an interpretation of the autobiography of the same name, follows Donald Miller (Marshall Allman) on his journey from a Baptist-centric Texas town to the ultra-liberal Reed College in Portland, where he must confront new experiences and changes to the way he lives and sees the world.
Allman was seemingly the right choice for the role of Miller, as he actually grew up in a small Texas town. Though he was not raised in a religious, conservative home, he felt he could relate to the film.
“I know so many people who [grew up in a religious home] and by the time they got to college they left it behind. That’s what drew me to this movie,” Allman said.
Through the film, Miller encounters classmates, professors and a love interest (Claire Holt) that offer an alternative perspective on his faith and provide him with the opportunity to accept, reject or completely ignore his background.
“It’s an American story: a kid raised Christian and yet when he gets to college finds that his religious upbringing did not prepare him for life outside the church. How does it get more American than that? Unless, of course, there was a bald eagle in the film,” Allman said, jokingly musing to himself. “Which of course there is not — they’re very expensive and fraught with logistical problems.”
Co-writer and director Steve Taylor worked closely with the real-life Miller to bring the book to the big screen, which naturally required some changes.
“In the book, Don is a writer in his early ’30s; I felt like that wasn’t necessarily a movie story,” Taylor said. “It would be much more interesting if [the character] was a college student going through these experiences. Don understood that a memoir and a movie aren’t the same thing. They’re different art forms.”
Like Allman, Taylor felt drawn to the film from the first time he read the source material.
“I finished the book six years ago and immediately wanted it to be my next movie project. It was a take on a very common experience that many of us go through,” Taylor said. “Someone who grows up in a very specific religious community and goes to college and ends up lost in translation.”
Any existential crisis requires a catalyst, and in the film it’s Miller’s parents’ divorce, which was a result of their religious differences. Miller’s out-of-the-box non-religious father challenges him to question whether his beliefs are based on genuine faith or just his upbringing, saying that Miller “only believe[s] that stuff because [he’s] afraid to hang out with people who don’t.”
After taking the initiative to enroll his son in Reed, Don’s father sets him on the path toward self-discovery.
At its core, Blue Like Jazz is a coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of a college student trying to figure out what life is all about. For college students especially, Blue Like Jazz captures the struggle of finding yourself without the security and guidance of your family.
There is also a love interest, here played by Holt, known for her role in The Vampire Diaries. Holt, often the soundboard of Miller’s insecurities, lends some balance to the film, as many of the characters play into college archetypes.
The film isn’t perfect — it does, at times, suffer from the familiar stereotypical trappings of coming-of-age tales. At one point in Blue Like Jazz, Don fully rejects his Baptist background and has, in his mind, the standard college experience: “got drunk, had a lesbian take me shopping and looked for an organization to take part in.” Though the scene is a weakness of the film, it’s at least entertaining and a revealing moment for Miller’s character.
The film’s production history is just as noteworthy a story as the plot. When private investors backed out, Miller posted on his blog that the film would be canceled. Two readers responded by starting “Save Blue Like Jazz” through Kickstarter, a fan-based fundraising website for creative projects.
“We were absolutely dead in the water,” Taylor said. “This was [a] lifeline that made the movie possible. It’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life. Honestly, it’s still hard to talk about without getting choked up about it.”
Taylor got deeply involved in the fundraising efforts. “I didn’t think this would work, but I said give us 10 bucks and I’ll call you personally,” he said. “I ended up with a call sheet of 3,500 names.”
“Save Blue Like Jazz” shows the number of fans of the original source material and the importance of the film’s message.
“Blue Like Jazz the book helped a lot of people know they weren’t alone for what they may have secretly been ashamed to voice out loud — that their faith experience wasn’t necessarily decorated with ribbons and bows,” Allman said. “We hope this film does the same for people.”