I distinctly remember the first time I was disappointed in Rich Mullins, the first time I realized he might not exactly fit the clean-cut image the world of Contemporary Christian Music tried to force its artists into. It was during a performance at the 1997 Cornerstone Music Festival in Bushnell, Illinois of the musical he and Mitch McVicker had written about Saint Francis of Assisi called Canticle of the Plains, a quirky little work that sets Francis in the middle of the American Old West of the 1800's rather than the Italy of the Middles Ages. There was a scene set in a saloon and Mullins played one of the extras, just a guy sitting at a table playing cards and smoking a big cigar...wait. What? Rich Mullins smoking a cigar? Christians don't do that kind of thing. Or at least they shouldn't--and there he was just smoking right in front of everyone as if that was OK. Then, a couple of times during the performance some of the characters used curse words. Ahhhh! He was breaking long-established Evangelical Christian codes. What was happening!? It was hard wrapping my mind around the fact that Rich Mullins would have approved of such language. Later, after he died, in a tribute CCM Magazine ran a tribute for him, his producer Reed Arvin talked about his funny side where he would run around the room acting like a hillbilly and cussing up a storm.
Essentially, what was becoming self-evident to me was that Mullins was rough around the edges, had a lot of flaws, and did indeed seem to embody the title "Ragamuffin," a title he took on as a self-descriptor after being influenced by author Brennan Maning and is also the name of the film writer/director David Leo Schultz (imdb) has made surrounding Mullins' life. Schultz portrays a troubled version of Mullins, one who faces disappointment early on and throughout his life for 1.) never being what his father expected him to be, 2.) one who has difficulty believing God actually loves him, 3.) one who struggles to get close to the people he loves and who love him the most, 4.) and one who feels an everpresent ambivalence towards the music industry who wanted to make him a star. These conflicts are the narrative center of the movie, some of which Mullins overcomes, some of which never quite resolve, and some of which he simply walks away from in freedom (I'll let the viewer experience that for themselves).
I have been writing about the advent of this film for months now (you can go here and here to catch up), simultaneously looking forward to watching it and yet fearful of what it might actually be like. The underlying question for me is: how does someone make a film about a person as iconic as Rich Mullins, a person whose work has so deeply affected so many people, and who contained so unique a persona?
I have seen the movie twice now and one of the greatest reliefs was in the actor they cast to play Mullins himself. Instead of finding someone to do a dead on Mullins impersonation (a la the brilliant work of Jamie Foxx in Ray or Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote) they found somebody to embody Mullins' energy and angst; his "spirit" if you will. The (all but) unknown actor Michael Koch is able in his role and he even pulled off the music excellently, learning numerous Mullins songs on piano and guitar all while not really sounding like Mullins*, which again, to me was a positive. Besides this their choices for the actors playing Mullins' girlfriend/love interest (Elizabeth Ann Roberts, called "Jess" in the movie) and the author/speaker Brennan Manning (Charles Lawlor) are both entirely believable in their roles, especially in the case of Charles Lawlor who pulled off the gruff and somewhat bewildered teady-bear persona of Brennan Manning. Plot-wise, one of the most effective threads was the way they portrayed Mullins slowly piecing together the song "Awesome God"; how it wasn't written in one inspired session, but realized incrementally and in different places. The whole sequence was insightful not just as a peak into creative mind of Rich Mullins but into the creative process in general.
(*Side Note: this goes to show you how much aesthetic perception is a subjective experience. In my my interview with him, Schultz recounted numerous stories where people had trouble distinguishing Koch's covers of Mullins' songs with Mullins' original recordings.)
Director Schultz also shows ambition in his visualization of the story, using a few a few symbolic cues to emphasize Mullins' struggles (a recurring swinging lightbulb is most prominent) and some claustrophobic editing techniques when Mullins enters into some of the darker times of his life. Besides this, interspersed throughout the film are little nods to Mullins aficionados, all of which add warmth and reveal the depth and quirkiness of Mullins as a person like when he teaches the audience how to replicate the sounds of a rainstorm (Those really in the know will have fun playing "spot the cameo" when Mullins' brother David, fellow musician Mitch McVicker, or even the film's director show up).
It is not a perfect film but it is a powerful one, deserving to be seen by anyone who has been affected by the life and music of Rich Mullins or anyone who needs to learn the story of how God's love broke into one man's messed up life (and as a result are then introduced to Mullins' music).
If I had complaints about the film it would be these:
1. It's too long, by about half an hour and could use some more editing. As mentioned, director Schultz has some great visual ideas, but unfortunately he repeats his visual motifs along with the corresponding plot points too much. There are great scenes showing Mullins battling his demons, mistreating his friends, and having flashbacks of conflicts with his father where playing them out once would have sufficed.
2. What I loved most about seeing Mullins in concert is one of the aspects I like least about the film: his speaking from the stage. To me, there is a lot of talking to/at the audience in the form of replicating Mullins' iconic messages of heart-rending lightning bolts of truth. These don't translate as well to film in my opinion, as actor Michael Koch (who I noted above is excellent) isn't quite able to capture Mullins' actual furor of speech or summon the depths to which Mullins went in his search to communicate truth. Added to this, these speeches happen too often, which disrupts the narrative flow.
3. My last complaint is a difficult one. As I've said, the film focuses a lot on the darkness, doubts, and vices in Rich Mullins' life. What I would like to have seen is the joyous side of his personality to shine through more, for as much as Mullins was troubled and struggled to connect with God and the people in his life, the joy of his love of Christ permeated everything he did. I am not saying the filmmakers didn't try to do this, but I am saying the troubled version of Mullins and not the God-enraptured infectious Mullins was the dominant version portrayed in the film. Truth be told, after viewing the film a second time, I saw the compelling prophetic version of Mullins as being more prominent than in the first viewing, so I'm not saying this version of him is not in the film. Simply put, I would have like to have seen more of the Mullins that everyone wanted to follow, the one that people were enamored (if perplexed) by. At the same time, I fully understand why the troubled Mullins—for narrative reasons—was made the focus .
But here is what I've come to realize about Ragamuffin as a film:
One, as someone who is so familiar with Rich Mullins' work I have trouble even seeing the movie. Sure, I didn't know him, but I have poured through his interviews and concerts and music for over two decades now. I can see the plot unfolding before my eyes and that the plot is about the life of Rich Mullins, but I can't really see Mullins up there; and this has nothing to do with the quality of the film itself. I'm too close to the material, even though I never knew him. It's very similar to when I record music: after hearing a song in my head, playing the song while recording it, and then mixing and editing the song to get ready to release it I can hardly even hear the song anymore. The material is too deeply embedded in me for me to actually experience it as a work of art separate from me. Something similar happened with me in the process of watching Ragamuffin.
Two, this film wasn't made for me anyway, it was made for all those people who have never heard of Mullins and need to first be introduced to his story and then to his music. As director David Leo Schultz said in my interview with him (see below), one of their main hopes is that this film will be a gateway into the music of Rich Mullins for a whole new group of people, people who may only know him as the guy who wrote "Awesome God" or who may not have known him at all.
So here's what I would suggest: every Rich Mullins fan reading this reading this review needs to find a way not just to see the movie themselves whenever it comes to town, but to go one step further and take someone with them who needs to know about Rich Mullins and ultimately who really needs to encounter the love of God.
Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins is currently being toured all around the U.S.A. To see if it is coming to a city near you, please visit the filmmakers' tour page:
The film has also just been released exclusively at Walmart and can be purchased instore or at their website.
In case you missed it a few months back, here is my
interview with Rich Mullins' producer, Reed Arvin as well as some thoughts on Mullins landmark album A Liturgy A Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band
Here is my recent interview with David Leo Schultz, the film's director, on the PostConsumer Reports Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/postconsumer/david-leo-schultz-podcast or just stream it here: