3.14.2014

Movie Review: Ragamuffin--The True Story of Rich Mullins

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:

http://ragamuffinthemovie.com/tour/

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:



17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog for a few months now, waiting for your review of RAGAMUFFIN. Thank you for being honest. I, too, did not think the movie was poorly done, but I could not fully recognize Rich Mullins in the man on the screen. As I said before, it was a bit heavy for someone whose hero was Francis of Assisi and considered himself the "clown" of the kingdom of God. Being a fellow Rich Mullins nerd, it may be too close to my heart as well to see anyone try to be Rich except Rich himself.

In your interview with Shultz, he said he had the rights to do a movie about Brennan Manning. I kind of hope he leaves that one alone. If this is what he gets out of someone as cleverly, endearingly, charmingly offensive as Rich, who had his issues, I think it would pain me to see what he does with someone who was ravished by the love of God, but who ultimately died from his demons like Brennan.

I hope there is room for one more at that table in heaven. Save me a profiterole you two!

Chris Marchand said...

Anonymous, thanks for reading and following the blog. I'm curious as to who you are. Why so secretive? :)

I appreciate your comments.
Cheers.

Anonymous said...

I was enamored with the love of Christ via Rich Mullins. It was fully clear to me, "what a bunch of misfits", and the voice in my spirit "and you?" That was my first Christian concert. I was overwhelmed with the fun and depth all experienced in 2 hours. You know we all wished it would never end..."and step by step"...who would have known or guessed it could have anything in the universe to do with alcohol. Though it is never implied, 12 steps, 12 dicsiples, 12 etc...I just loved the depth of the honesty of the movie. I was sad to see or not see before, how much pain he may have been carrying. We all have hurt that way. And he said it in half of his songs. Duh. I met him once, late late after a concert only about 12 peeps hanging around and was as comfortable as a flea on a dog. I knew I could only get the moment and would have to flit. But it was nice. Rubbed his back as if my little brother. My camera would not work and finally (back then film) it worked and was the last piece of film in the camera. God is good. So I am sure my dumb joke may have finally hit him late in the night, or not, but I knew enough to tell one. I miss him, his depth, his mercy for the lost and poor. I saw the movie and will again. And as I used to do with him music, I will hand his movie around to everyone I can. Social media for this: awesome. Thanks for blogging.

MMorria Nickles said...

As one who was introduced to Rich's music at 12 (1995), sang in the tribute choir at the Franklin Graham crusade in Wichita, KS in 1997, was called to work among the Navajo via Rich's musical Canticle of the Plains, was the youngest volunteer at The Legacy of a Brother of St. Frank, and now live and work in Dine Bikeyah... I have heard of both side of Rich, from David Mullins, from missionaries among the Navajo, and from others who knew him. Now at 31 myself, and every bit as much of a ragamuffin, though my struggles dont show as much... this movie speak volumes. Thank you so much for your review.

Chris Marchand said...

Thanks Moria. It seems like you have an amazing story to tell and it looks like you've started blogging really recently so maybe you'll be telling us. Thanks for reading and thanks for your words.

Bill said...

I don't know a lot about the life of Rich Mullins, but I have been influenced by his music. I will be getting the movie at wal-mart today to watch with my wife. I must say my favorite song by him is "My Deliverer". That song speaks to my heart as I am a senior citizen who's ready to go "Home"...I'm just waiting for my ride.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your blog. One thing I've heard about Mullins, that instantly came to me when I read your article, was that he was a smoker in real life! A Christian musician smoking - what a scandal! My high school friend Bob, now Father Bob the priest, got to hang out with him and his band after a show in the 90's, and told me that Rich enjoyed a cigarette and was embarrassed about it. For what it's worth. God Bless, I'll be checking out the film sometime soon.

Doug Preszler said...

4/13/15
I watched the film for the first time yesterday. Let me preface my comments by saying that I can't remember when I first heard a Rich Mullins song. But I remember the sound being different than anything else in Christian music I was listening too. I had no knowledge of who he was as a human being, desperate from his music. I just loved his music. I was devastated when he died. So when I was compelled to watch the movie yesterday I was taken back by what I discovered. I'm not going to say anything about the movie from a critical view. For me, I immediately identified with his spiritual struggle. And the fact that he smoked, drank, and cussed offended me not in the least. In fact it was refreshing!?! I too have done all three. And when he says I don't fit in here. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I now know I'm a Ragamuffin. And have already started reading The Ragamuffin Gospel. And am so grateful for finding out that Rich started to find his place when he was tragically lost. Thanks for listening.
Doug Preszler

Gwen@Sol-republic said...

I haven't seen it. I am a big fan of Rich's music. I have used his songs in study, to look closer at the word. I don't feel that I know him just from his music but I feel blessed by his music because it's helped to bring me closer to God, as many other artiste's work has done.

I don't know if the ultimate aim of the movie should be learning more about Rich. Maybe it should be looking more closely at the things we each try to overcome as we walk daily. I think maybe that would be Rich's hope.

I think his music was written to express his own hopes and struggles and to draw others closer to our Maker. Hopefully, in all the questions about the movie, we all will think more about our daily steps.

Peace

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

:)

I would also like to say thank you for the honesty regarding. But what I've found is this; in regards to your saying: people should've seen more about his joyful and happy side: many people never actually knows the depth of those struggles, since they only see the cream.... You hear a song and you think: HOW GOOD IS THAT!!!! and you can run on it for months; but do you actually know where it was birthed at, where it comes from? So, I would then like to say: don't worry about the happy and good side; all can listen to his music, and see the plays, and read the words about him, but some needs to see the struggle and the wrestle also, so that they can understand their own struggle, and those of others to come.

I like the truth regarding people's lives. It shows me I'm alien to the norm and that I aught to be. It also keep me on the ground since every body has their struggles and wars.

I'm being honest.

Things happened and I'm triggered by this man's life and call, and in searching I discovered this conversation. I don't know much about him, but I surely will go and find the movie to buy it. I'd like to watch it more than once.

Not many people can grasp the fact that the goodness comes from the same person with struggles; but isn't that exactly how God works? I sometimes wonder what people would've said if they were to hear what happened on the inside of Jesus.......

I enjoyed your writing,
Thanks,
Hentus

Chris Marchand said...

Hentus,
thanks for your words

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I was deeply touched by the movie. There a many that struggle with some form of addiction and a difficult childhood. To me it was a journey of peace that Rich was on. If the movie is correct, he found it. In the movie, his character said something to the effect that we do things, like drinking, to fill a void we have inside.

As Christians, I'm Southern Baptist, I don't think we appreciate or have compassion for those who struggle. It's deeper than just not doing things. We really should carry one another's burdens.

Again, the movie resinated with my own experiences and it touched me deeply.

Anonymous said...

Hi!
I first encountered Rich Mullins at the Lufkin, Texas concert where I took our youth group, along with our youth minister. I was a brand new Christian at the age of 28ish. I was stoked...high on Jesus...having no experience with Rich, his music or his life.
As we were looking for seats my eyes crossed with his ( Rich Mullins). We held that gaze only a moment and then he looked down with what appeared to me as disdain . At the time, I thought,"He thinks I am a "groupie. He thinks my joy is in him." I worshipped with everyone during the concert
, but left confused about Rich. After that I never really cared to listen to his music. If I heard his name at all I felt almost angry.
When Rich Mullins died I determined that God took him home because he was no longer a good witness - he no longer showed the love of God to His people.
After seeing Ragamuffin, I was freed from years of contemplation...because I did contemplate. Nothing about that moment or his death ever was set in stone.
I am elated to understand the complexity of Rich Mullins, now, so that I can listen to his music and come to terms with him.

Thanks!!

Anonymous said...

Intersting, I was just in Lufkin, TX a few weeks ago, which is about 1000 miles from where I live...

It is also interesting that you took so much away because of a gaze and determined the reason that God took him home...

Sandy said...

I knew of Rich thru singing his songs and knew he died and that was it. Then I watched the movie and was so captivated, I had to find out everything I could about him. And was surprised and really happy to find out he was much different in all his concerts and interviews than the movie portrayed him. They really should have shown a more complete picture. Listening to the director, I got the impression he showed Rich as being so dark and troubled as a way to work out his own demons. I realize it is not meant to be a true documentary, but he really should have shown his other side. But, I'm grateful for all the live recordings where I can see him. The Lord really has used him to bring me closer to Him, worship Him so much more, and beyond. I am so grateful for his life. bless you

Ilya said...

I wonder if more of us were real about our faith and why it is important to us, if more people would understand why Christ is important to them.

MommaChard said...

If you have not seen the documentary about Rich's life, that came out at the same time as Ragamuffin, you really need to watch it. It gives balance to Ragamuffin because the people who knew him best talk about the sweet, funny side of him. To be fair to Rich, seeing the documentary is a must. You can probably get a copy on Amazon or through The Color Green films.