A Ragamuffin’s Review of Ragamuffin

I finally had the opportunity to watch Ragamuffin, David Leo Schultz’s Rich Mullins biopic, over the weekend.  As any regular reader of this blog should know, I’ve been a self-proclaimed ragamuffin for many years now, and so I’ve been highly anticipating this film for months.  This is going to be a very honest and open critique, because I personally appreciate when a review of Thimblerig’s Ark is honest and critical in a positive way.  I am going to do the same for Ragamuffin, in the off chance that the review might make its way back to the filmmakers, in hopes that it might encourage them, and be a benefit in their next cinematic outing.

My review of Ragamuffin can’t begin without my mentioning the enormous amount of respect I have for David Leo Schultz, for the vision, passion, and endurance he brought to this project.  It’s appropriate that Schultz’s film company is called The Color Green, not only because of the Mullins reference, but also because this was a grass roots project from the get-go.  It is inspiring to see what he and his team accomplished, starting from an inspired idea, bringing it to fruition in a very professionally made, beautifully shot film.   You can read a great interview with David here, that gives more depth to the choices he made with this film.

RichRagamuffin chronicles the life of Rich Mullins, the outspoken singer/songwriter who worked (reluctantly) in the Christian music industry for several years in the 80’s and 90’s until his untimely death in a jeep accident on September 19, 1997.  With his open and authentic personality, his propensity to speak truth to power, and his bare footed concerts, Mullins made a huge impact on young Christians at that time.  You can read about an encounter I had with Mullins on a previous post here, but suffice it to say that he was a huge influence on my life as well.

I’d rather not take the time to summarize the events of the film, as I’m figuring most people who have read this far have actually seen Ragamuffin.  I’d rather just go ahead and speak specifically to the things that I thought were done well with this film, and the things I think could have done better.  But I want to preface this with the confession that it would have been nearly impossible for me to approach a biopic about Rich Mullins with no preconceptions, and without seeing it as a creative myself, imagining what I would have kept, and what I would have done differently, if I had been making this film.

That being said, let me start with the things I enjoyed about Ragamuffin.

1)  The passion of David Leo Schultz. 

I’ve mentioned this already, but I don’t think I can say enough how much admire that Schultz successfully took his vision from his imagination to the screen, against all odds.  He had to convince Rich’s family, his friends, raise the funds, put together the cast and crew, and then he took it out – church by church, just like Rich used to do.  I hope that everything else I say in this review will be seen through that lens of respect and admiration.

Screenshot from Ragamuffin

Screenshot from Ragamuffin

2)  The cinematography of Ryan Bodie. 

When I think of Rich and his music, one thing I think of is wide open spaces, and this film had no shortage of beautiful shots of windswept wheat fields, dusty plains, and stunning desert vistas.  Another great image is the swinging light bulb which we see first when young Rich has messed up his father’s tractor, and which comes to represent the broken relationship between Rich and his father.   For some reason, this technique made me think of the video for one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs, Hold Me, Jesus.

3)  The Evolution of Awesome God.  

I like the way we were teased with the development of this, by far the most well-known of Rich’s songs.  It was a good reminder that as talented a songwriter may be, songs take time, and often will sit at the edge of inspiration, just waiting for the right spark to be pushed over the edge.

4)  The choice of the father/son relationship as the anchor of the film.  

You can see threads of this relationship woven through many of Rich’s songs, and considering David Mullin’s involvement in the film (Rich’s brother), I have to presume that the portrayal was fairly accurate, if not perhaps heightened for dramatic effect.  Either way, Rich loved his father, admired his father, longed for his father’s acceptance, but didn’t feel it.  The film handles this nicely, and the resolution of the issue is what enables the film to end with Rich at peace.

5)  The unapologetically real portrayal of a famous Christian man who had very real struggles.  

The movie effectively hit three of the points I made in my article, What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking.  In that article, I said Christians should be freed to make movies that are not safe, movies that challenge the audience, and movies that ask difficult questions.  Ragamuffin certainly did these things in spades, and David Leo Schultz couldn’t have made an authentic movie about Rich Mullins without them.  I didn’t like seeing Rich smoking and getting drunk, but those struggles were a part of his life and needed to shown or the film wouldn’t have been authentically Rich’s life.  I think this was mostly effective because the filmmakers didn’t  glorify the struggles, and I doubt that anyone walked out of Ragamuffin thinking that they wanted to emulate those parts of Rich’s life.  I’ve struggled with addictions myself, and I found strength and comfort while watching Rich’s struggle.

6.  Rich making it rain in a concert.

I was so glad to see this included.  This was one of my best memories from seeing Rich in a big concert.  And, in the film, it was one of the rare times when Rich actually looked like he was having a blast.  Very, very cool that it was included.

Thus ends the part of the review when I discussed the things I liked.  Now to the things I wished had been different…

1)  Michael Koch as Rich Mullins.  

Koch did fine with the acting, and progressively well with the singing and playing, but I just couldn’t buy him as Mullins, as much as I wanted to, until the last thirty minutes.  I didn’t – by any stretch of the imagination – expect Schulz to seek out a Mullins doppleganger, but I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the actor playing Rich being this big, buff, handsome man.  On the outside, Rich was incredibly average, which made the deep power of his words and his songs and his story that much more powerful.  Every time I saw Koch’s broad shoulders squeezed into that white t-shirt, I thought he was much better suited to play Superman, not the everyman who was Rich Mullins.

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.45.05 PM

2)  The nearly complete lack of joy.  

This was also something I had couldn’t overcome.  My limited experience with Rich Mullins was that he was a man who had his struggles, yes, but he was also a wickedly funny man with an often surprisingly sharp sense of humor.  This was part of the reason why he had young men like myself willing to drop everything to be around him!  Yes, he was wise and deep in his understanding of God.  Yes, he struggled with his personal demons.  But this is also the man who wrote a song referring to God as the maker of noses; who wondered if the little girls giggled when the young Jesus walked past; who considered the story of Rachel and Leah an awfully dirty trick.  This is the man who put the cup game on stage long before Anna Kendrick did it in Pitch Perfect.  The real irony for me in this is that director David Leo Schultz got his start as a comedian, and he somehow made Rich Mullins seem like he was only a tortured soul.  That is perhaps the biggest pity of all to me.

3)  The egocentricity of Rich Mullins.

I want to be careful about how I write this section, because the truth is I didn’t know Rich past the one time I met him with several other guys, but it really bothered me that Rich was so Rich-centric in the film, which made him pretty unlikable.  For example, did Rich really use the occasion of singing in a church to make the public decision that he was going to go to Nashville?  While Rich may have come to Morris’s Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.51.45 PMfuneral drunk, did he really come back into the room later to talk to the son of the man who died and use the occasion to only talk about himself?  Did Rich really insist that the young men who toured with him inform him on every little move that they made?  The answer to all of these questions might just be an unreserved “YES!  He did all of those things!”  But I have a real difficult time aligning the Rich Mullins of Ragamuffin with the Rich Mullins I came to know through music, interviews, and my one meeting over cake and Koolaid.

4)  Miscellaneous nit-picky things.  

These are smaller items, but they did detract from the film for me.  First, I didn’t buy the way the father cussed.  It seemed forced.  Second, Rich’s hair changed in illogical ways throughout the course of the film.  I do know that Rich had several different looks, but this came across more as an issue of when certain scenes were filmed rather than an attempt to convey different looks.  Third, I’m not a fan of narration in film, and I think the film would have been tighter if it had just been straight up narrative.

In Conclusion…

While I am genuinely happy that this film was made, while I know that it has touched many people in profound ways, and while I think that it was a giant leap forward in many ways for films made by Christians, it just wasn’t the film that I had hoped it would be.

Like I said at the top of this review, I approached this film with so many of my own thoughts about the life of Rich Mullins that David Leo Schultz had a pretty tall order to not disappoint me.  In many ways, this reminds me of when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out, and people had nearly twenty years of anticipation built up.  How could Lucas not disappoint?

And so Ragamuffin receives three very solid golden groundhogs for being a risky film that challenges its audience and asks some hard questions. But it loses two golden groundhogs because it is so obviously made for the church that I don’t think it would play well out of the Christian subculture, and – in my opinion – while Rich Mullins’ story is compelling, Ragamuffin could have benefitted from a bit more script doctoring to make the story tighter, especially in the second act, which seemed to drag.

Golden Groundhogs

16 thoughts on “A Ragamuffin’s Review of Ragamuffin

  1. you are spot on in your review of Ragamuffin, there is so much
    of Rich missing in the movie and in spite of the fact that people
    close to Rich were involved in the project, a lot of Hollywood
    type reframing of the truth. God always lifted Rich up through
    whatever he was going through and played him beautifully like the master violinist playing his treasure.

  2. I agree with your review. At least it was not one of those “Christian movies” that diabetics cannot watch because of the sugar intake. I approached the film with a great deal of trepidation because I did not think a movie could do Rich justice. I bought it on Amazon Instant Video the day it came out, and did not watch it for a couple of weeks because I feared so much it was going to stink. It did not stink…but I could never suspend disbelief and buy the actor as Rich…he was just wrong physically for the part. He sang well enough, his acting was acceptable but he was just wrong. But mostly…yeah Rich dealt with a lot, most of us Ragamuffins do, but where was the joy? With all his problems, all his failings there was this central core to Rich who lived in Joy about the ferocious love that his Lord had showed him in the midst of his failures , Rich was not a hero,,,he was a sinner saved by the grace of God through our Lord Jesus who God had given the gift of songwriting. He wore a crooked halo, like all of us do. They never got that smile of his right, not once.

  3. I enjoyed Ragamuffin and it brought back such strong memories of devotions at college and also of seeing Brennan Manning speak. More than anything, it was a great reminder of two wonderful men. I agree with your discussion of the flaws. Really, in my mind the best part of the movie was the credits, which showed some really funny and moving clips of the real Rich performing. That made it all better, for me and those are the parts I think of often.

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  5. We have had many friends over to watch this film and everyone was moved by it. I consider that a “success.” I agree with every critique you made on the film, with the only caveat being that films can’t show every aspect of a person- they must follow all those pesky storytelling rules on theme and arc…so I can forgive many of the negatives you listed.
    Except that wig. Someone dropped the ball there…But still- lives changed for Jesus- priceless. I think Rich would be happy about that.

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  7. This movie was suggested to me by Netflix’s and I put it on reluctantly. I had just watched a bunch of cheesy cookie cuter Christian movies that have been done to death and I did not want to watch another one. But, I put it on in plans of taking a nap. But, quickly into this movie it got my attention b/c I recognized Jesus in it. I knew Rich’s music, but I did not know him. But, I felt that this movie was refreshingly real. This hair growing long and short randomly and out of sink was the only negative thing I could say about it. Which is no big deal, we all know it’s a movie. But, this movie was good in everyday. It wasn’t cheesy, it wasn’t stereotypical, and it has good acting in it. While you say Michael was not believable to those who knew the real Rich, he was very believe able to me. To me, now, Rich Mullins isn’t just a faded memory of a musician that once was. But, this movie touched me, encouraged me, and breathed a fresh breath of life into my own walk with Jesus. It gave me hope that God honors those he calls and sets apart, the rejected of men, and gives them a lasting legacy. Making their name great. Though I was grieved at what I felt he lost or did with out here on earth, I rejoice that Christ was his ultimate gain and I’m thankful he knew that full well. God bless. To the director, thank you for honoring this mans life, although to some it may not have been what they thought it should be, I thank you for honoring him and the beautiful job you have done. God bless

    • That was my big problem with seeing Ragamuffin – I was much too close to the material. I nearly named my son Mullins! I have a huge amount of respect for the guys who made the film, but being so close to it all, they had a real tough job meeting my expectations. I recognize that. However, my review was based on my response to the film, and I wanted to write my honest thoughts! So, while I wish I’d liked the film more, I agree with you that it was a refreshing film from the Christian community. I even referenced Ragamuffin in a good way in a recent review I wrote about Persecuted.

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. I agree with most of your criticisms while still respecting the angle Schultz took. I was most disappointed by the omission of Rich’s growing love for liturgy that so clearly provided him with an anchor and a sacramental imagination that increased his sense of wonder and joy in life. I understand, judging from articles written soon after Rich’s death, that his family disagreed with his Roman Catholic priest friend/mentor/spiritual director over whether he was about to convert to Roman Catholicism when he died. Consequently, I can see why the conversion issue was left out, but to ignore the liturgy angle entirely leaves a huge, critical part of Rich’s life missing. But Schultz clearly was mostly impacted by Rich’s troubled relationship with his father, and he ended up making a film that seems partially intended for Christian men struggling with deep issues and addictions, and on that level I think it works powerfully at times.

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