Blue Like Jazz (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Blue Like Jazz (2012)

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There was a moment during Blue Like Jazz where the otherworldly secular nature of Reed College seemed a bit too drummed up for effect.  It seems a bit too perfect that the first thing the Christian boy from Texas sees is a woman in a skimpy carrot costume being chased by a man similarly clothed as a rabbit.  But what comes off as laying it a bit thick in the film sent me spiraling back into my own memories.

By my second year of college I'd dressed up like a robot and went weeping for my father, Robocop, in our awesome film store The Movie Fan.  I'd done more than a fair share of drinking and spent an entire night with my friends in a barbed wire decorated vehicle dubbed JERU1 looking for people who looked like Fred Savage.  This is to say nothing of the various shenanigans that went on after Theater of Ted, with both the parties.  Then there were those long conversations afterward where we were just trying to figure out what to do.

This was, now, over eight years ago.  Blue Like Jazz captures this feeling perfectly, of being alone and scared, excited about all the possibilities, and in the meantime questioning what we were and where we're going to be.  The blissful jazz soundtrack is the perfect choice to capture this feeling.  There's the occasional dip into rock or rap if the background is appropriate for it, but in the meantime there's the jazz.  That beautiful, free-form music that's altogether familiar yet never stays in the same place at the same time.

The film is very evenhanded in how religion is portrayed, stopping to realize how smashing a cross doesn't quite get the right message across.

I was almost fooled into thinking this was going to be another film based on the opening voice-over.  Kenny (Jason Marsden) talks on about the elements of a story and how his Texan religious upbringing is going to tested soon.  Cue the eye-roll on my part, but then the movie quietly and charmingly sets up just how lovely a religious town he has.  What's more, this isn't a town blind to its own shortcomings, best seen in a horribly embarrassing moment the new youth pastor trucks out a Mexican puppet and speaks in a cartoonish accent, much to the glares of many of the other parishioners.  This seems like a good place to live, and Kenny agrees until he correctly intuits an affair his mom is having then wonders what the whole religious thing is for.

So Kenny rejects the Baptist college experience set up for him by his mother and instead goes to the liberal school.  This is where the movie seemed to stumble with the surreal introduction of the carrot and so forth, but really is just setting up an environment of experimentation.  No matter how odd the background seems nothing is ever played for effect, and aside from some initial "You a religious boy, huh?" trappings the rest of the students are living their own lives away from Kenny.  This is a fully realized little world, where people come in and out of Kenny's life based on their needs, not the whims of the plot or whatever point director and cowriter Steve Taylor is trying to make.

Life just happens on campus and it's beautiful the way it's all so subtly expressed.  Faded blue lighting follows everyone down their path and the ever-present jazz is there whenever they're questioning what they're doing.  Taylor's best decision was to trust the small mood indicators, the quick smile from an extra, the somewhat surreal atmosphere they never call direct attention to, and, again, that beautiful music.

Having been in a similar costume arrangement, it's less weird participating than it is looking in.

I admit I'm quite taken with this movie and I love how it never plays its big revelations for huge dramatic effect.  Just look at who is possibly the best character, The Pope (Justin Welborn), who plays faux-religious jester in his court of drunken delights but keeps his pain hiding in plain sight.  The way the movie deals with this is in a few small sentences in two separate scenes, one that sets up the dramatic showdown then backs off, and another where there is real catharsis and truth in a quick, honest conversation.

Finally, I loved that it is willing to play fair with all sides of the religious debate.  I admit that the  wannabe Hitchens type that comes in at the end is a bit too much on the side of a secular caricature, the rest is perfect.  What comes off as a cartoon is soon calmed down, the extremes become filed down, and what's left is a debate simply about what you find beautiful.

This movie trapped me in a wonderful period of my memories while it was playing, and is one of the only movies this year that's made me really grateful for the experience.

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Blue Like Jazz (2012)

Directed by Steve Taylor.
Screenplay by Taylor and Ben Pearson.
Starring Jason Marsden, Claire Holt, and Justin Welborn.

Posted by Andrew

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