When one stops to consider the history of Christian films and their inherent need to ensure a message is delivered, it's difficult to leave the film without feeling as though the filmmaker's only true intent was to sell the audience on something. Therefore, the subtlety attempted in the film 'Blue Like Jazz' is more of a tricky proposition, as most audiences have been indoctrinated to expect such a film to be anything but. Whether it is an ideal, a principle, or a set of moral values, these films all speak to those who are already highly attuned to the message, though the sometimes-exaggerated tone can feel like a spotlight pointing directly at the unconverted.
When the financial success of films like 'Courageous' and 'Fireproof' is taken into consideration, the more evenhanded, speculative nature of the themes as explored by 'Blue Like Jazz' comes off as something of a gamble. Perhaps it is with little surprise that even though the film is based on author Don Miller's popular semi-autobiographical book of the same name, financing for the project nearly fell through early on. As such, 'Blue Like Jazz' became the largest crowdsourced film in American history for a short time, thanks to the efforts of a Kickstarter campaign. Of course, the parallels between the film's journey to theaters and that of its protagonist, Don Miller – played here by former 'True Blood' actor Marshall Allman – are certainly not lost on anyone paying attention.
After an eye-opening experience, Miller, a devout Southern Baptist, abandons his plans to attend a Christian college, and instead heads off to what the film cheekily alludes to as the hub of godless liberalism: Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In part, Miller is responding to his mother's affair with married youth minister, but he is also following the advice of his lackadaisical, deadbeat father, who he refers to as The Hobo (Eric Lange). Once there, Miller quickly becomes lost in an effort to redefine who he is by simply avoiding all of the prejudicial baggage that comes from being a stereotypical Christian. And at his first at bat, Miller befriends a young lesbian, Lauryn (Tania Raymonde of 'Lost') with a Sir Mix-A-Lot-level penchant for a certain part of women's bodies.
Most of the student-body at Reed embraces a kind of never-ending anti-capitalist, anti-consumer, anti-corporate ethos as a means by which they learn, apparently, instead of any actual studying. Miller soon falls in with a crowd of impassioned students that includes The Pope (Justin Welborn), an unofficial student guide and sort of counterculture roadmap who regularly rallies against the beliefs of the religious by ironically wearing the Pope's garb. Romantically, Miller takes a shine to Penny (Claire Holt), who is a kind of ultra-cute, Tyler Durden-esque activist with a weakness for kooky displays of costumed non-conformity and the occasional bit of billboard vandalism.
Expectedly, the concept of religion is a constant topic of conversation and debate – especially in Miller's writing class where he regularly faces off with Yuri (Matt Godfrey) a student unafraid to speak his beliefs, religious or otherwise. Most of the time, however, 'Blue Like Jazz' takes a more ambiguous look at the notion of faith and religion; it is, for the film anyway, more important to consider Donald Miller's journey back around to what he once believed, but with a new, more profound perspective. By rejecting and participating in the tearing down of his beliefs, Miller stands to be able to look upon them with a renewed, and slightly less sullied sense of understanding. It's the same kind of discovery he undergoes upon first entering the Reed College campus.
The film is cyclical in that way, it was always going to end with Miller finding his way back to where he started, but 'Blue Like Jazz' eschews the sort of finger-pointing, "I-told-you-so" mentality for a healthier, more open, and more plausible form of acceptance. The film hits its stride depicting Miller shedding the restrictive and repressive nature of his upbringing, for something more open-minded – an outlook, which, conveniently, allows Miller to embrace his old beliefs with new eyes. The film spends so much time pointing its audience toward acceptance of the Reed College student lifestyle that Miller's sudden post-bacchanalian enlightenment comes across as somewhat stunted, and could have used more screen time and justification than the somewhat heavy-handed monologue provided.
In fact, 'Blue Like Jazz' director and co-screenwriter Steve Taylor embraces the Reed College campus and it's out-of-the-box thinkers so well that the film's other characters nearly fall short in terms of being delivered a complete story arc. As such, the film's denouement, and Miller's relationship with Penny, feels underdeveloped. And while the latter may have added some needed depth to a character that comes off as superficially perfect, the former points to an aspect keeping the film from achieving a feat far more significant.
If only Taylor had invested more time in making the characters as noteworthy and three dimensional as Reed College, 'Blue Like Jazz' might have been as impressive for all of the things it was, instead of being more remarkable for what it so graciously left out.
'Blue Like Jazz' comes with a 1080p MPEG-4 codec, but despite that, the transfer is very indicative of the film's low-budget beginnings. It's not that low-budget films cannot have impressive or even excellent transfers, it's just that on the road to actually being completed, the indie film's home video push may not have received as much time and effort as their larger-budgeted counterparts. That being said: 'Blue Like Jazz' has an adequate, but largely unimpressive transfer that captures the cool, earthy tones of the film's setting, but without any real flair or true sense of depth.
Black levels are distinct throughout, which helps with the contrast on what is mostly a film absent striking changes between such levels (the film is trying to depict Portland, after all). However, distinct banding issues are present throughout, which tend to be distracting – especially during the film's indoor scenes.
While the transfer here certainly isn't horrible, it's not without it's faults, either. Ultimately, the film comes off looking soft, almost purposefully hazy – an effect that limits the appearance of any fine detail in anything other than the extreme close-up shots. As the film certainly is worth a viewing, more time and effort on the Blu-ray transfer may have been a worthwhile effort in garnering a wider audience.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix also feels as though it could have gone a bit further. While that is certainly not the fault of the film – 'Blue Like Jazz' has little more going on than dialogue and voiceovers – there is the occasional music performance or bits from the film's score that vacillate between sounding very good and somewhat questionable. In one instance, the film's soundtrack exhibits excellent fidelity and is presented with rich bass and clear tones throughout, while another example leaves the music sounding rather tinny and hollow.
Surround sound is virtually non-existent in the film, most of the dialogue is pushed robustly though the center and front channels, but when the settings change to a raucous party or a mess hall filled with applauding students, the rear channels create an acceptable amount of imaging and surround to lift the scene above the mostly one-sided affair that makes up the rest of the film's audio.
All told, 'Blue Like Jazz' pulls off the impressive feat of being that truly rare example of a Christian film that holds firm to its beliefs, but not to the exclusion of the countless other viewpoints in existence. Often subtle, completely accessible and, most importantly, tolerant, 'Blue Like Jazz' offers itself as a Christian film targeting secular and religious audiences, and having the kind of well-acted, familiar coming of age story that is capable of entertaining them both. The Blu-ray release is a complete package that while falling a little short on the film's presentation doesn't fail to provide ample additional material to make the viewing more comprehensive and enjoyable.