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.