On September 20, 1997, I was at home reading my e-mail and saw Danl Blackwood’s name pop up. My mouse cursor jumped to open it. I was on Danl’s Rich Mullins mailing list, where he kept fans up to date on Rich news, interviews, concert schedules, and so on. Danl always had something fun for us.
September 20th’s message, though, made me run cold, and to this day I remember the first sentences word for word: “The unthinkable has happened. Rich has been called home to the Father.”
I sat there, stunned. My mom saw my face and asked me what was wrong. “Rich Mullins was killed in a car accident,” I fumbled before bursting into tears.
It’s the only time I ever cried over the death of a celebrity. Didn’t do it when Jimmy Stewart died. Didn’t do it when James Cagney died. Didn’t do it when Audrey Hepburn died. Didn’t even do it when River Phoenix died.
Rich Mullins was a different story.
I never met Rich. I didn’t even get to see him in concert. All I knew of him was what he revealed in his songs and the column he wrote for Release Magazine, as well as anything else I could find about him. Still, when he died it felt like an absolute gut-puncher, as if I had lost my best friend. I still miss him immensely.
That’s why I hesitated to watch Ragamuffin, the 2014 feature film about Rich. I was afraid it would hurt too much.
However, I finally bit the bullet when I saw that both Amazon Prime and FilmRise had it for free, and then I had to watch it three times to take everything in.
The film is told mostly in flashback, with Michael Koch as Rich giving a radio interview to David Mullins, one of Rich’s real-life brothers. He’s not the only friend or relative of Rich’s to appear in the film. Sam Howard, one of Rich’s college buddies, plays his dad, Maurice. Mitch McVicker, who was riding in the Jeep Mullins drove the night he died, makes a brief cameo in a diner. People Rich knew are sprinkled throughout the audiences at concert venues. The whole thing feels very personal to those who are familiar with Rich Mullins, like he’s not too far off.
Ragamuffin ticks a lot of the usual musical biopic boxes. It shows Rich’s early life and his rise to fame. It shows his breakthrough songs. There’s the typical “You’re on the radio!” scream, although it’s one of Rich’s friends doing the screaming. There are a few brief montages. There’s Rich hitting bottom, which happens more than once. There are several breakthroughs. And of course, there’s the usual textual epilogue right before the credits.
Rich’s foibles are presented pretty overtly. Unlike the usual Christian film, Ragamuffin shows Rich doing things Christians may not always be comfortable with, such as the scene when he smashes a phone booth window after his fiancee breaks up with him. He does a lot of brooding on hotel room beds with empty beer bottles on the nightstand and smokes like a chimney, even during recording sessions. According to the site, Jesus Freak Hideout, these plot devices were added with the blessing of the family.
However, the movie presents more than Rich’s dark side. Since he’s Rich, he’s got dirty bare feet and rumpled hair for most of the movie. The dialogue includes a lot of Rich’s actual words, although not in chronological order, and there’s plenty of music. Most of the songs featured in the film include just a verse and a chorus, which makes sense because the movie would run way too long otherwise.
The film also drives home how atypical Rich was in the Christian music industry. Some of the writing seems ironically on the nose, such as when Reunion Records executives Bryan (Wolfgang Bodison) and Matt (James Kyson) hear Rich play “Verge of A Miracle” for the first time.
“This could keep him around longer,” Matt says.
“Maybe. He’s living on borrowed time, then.” Bryan replies.
They’re not talking about Rich’s short life, but about his life as a marketable Christian artist. He’s only valuable to the label as long as he sells records and makes money, because in the end, Christian music is just like any other musical genre: It’s a business.
Rich isn’t into that. He just wants to serve God. He doesn’t want to live like a rock star and gets himself out of Nashville as soon as he can. It’s not the only time he bolts, though. Several scenes in the film show Rich running offstage amid wild applause; I don’t know if that really happened, but I do know he liked to get people singing a hymn and then slipping away while they were still singing. His aim was to get people to focus on God instead of him, which is why he often signed autographs and ended his writings with the phrase, “Be God’s.”
This gets a bit downplayed in the film, because Movie Rich is scared. He’s scared of people leaving him, he’s scared of not being loved, he’s scared of himself. There’s this overarching theme in the film of the tough relationship Rich had with his dad (Mel Fair), that he never really approved of his son, and the guidance that could have been there is skewed and inconsistent. This is generally denoted by a swinging, bare lightbulb and Rich as a little boy staring mournfully at his angry dad.
Actually, John Mullins approved of his son’s aptitude for music, and made sure he had lessons. On the other hand, when Rich grew his hair out, dear old Dad wasn’t a fan, and the two butted heads on the topic more than once. It wasn’t until the family surprised Rich after a concert and John playfully tugged on his son’s ponytail that the conflict was resolved and Rich knew his dad was proud of him.
In the film, though, Rich looks for other father figures to make up for what he’s missing with his dad. I’m not sure how much of what the movie showed was real and how much was dramatic license, but I really wanted Rich to be at peace with that relationship, and I know that the real Rich did come to that place.
For that matter, Film Rich did, too. One of the things I really liked about Ragamuffin was the part when it showed Rich on a retreat with Brennan Manning (Charles Lawlor). Manning was a defrocked priest who traveled around preaching and wrote books about the unrelenting frailty of man and the relentless love of God. He helped more than one Christian artist recallibrate when they felt like they were losing focus on ministry, and Rich was no different.
During the retreat, Manning asked Rich to write several letters. One was from John Mullins to Rich, in which his dad declared his love and acceptance of his son. In real life, while Rich wrote the letter, he began sobbing uncontrollably. It was so loud Manning could hear it from his own cabin. By the end of the retreat, Rich was visibly freed from his demons. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come across that way in the film. Rich seems just as dark and troubled as at the beginning.
I think the thing I missed the most from Ragamuffin was Rich’s humor. Sure, he had a dark side, but he always had a sense of fun about him. Rich’s friends remembered him having a boyish charm. He liked GooGoo Clusters. He saw Dances With Wolves thirteen times. He had a sly way of expressing himself, sneaking bits of mischief into his words like a verbal Puck.
At the same time, Rich knew how to communicate the beauty and gravity of God’s love in a way most people can only dream about. Like this clip from Pursuit of A Legacy that to me is quintessential Mullins:
Whereas my first impression of Michael Koch was that he looked like he was out for a fight. He has the barefoot, rumpled T-shirt thing down, and his singing evokes Rich’s with an eerie symmetry, at least tonally. That’s where the similarities stop. There’s a lot of sincerity in his performance, though, and Koch is a Mullins fan, so he plays the part with obvious love. I just wish the part had been given more balance.
Also noticeably absent is David Strasser, known professionally as Beaker. He was Rich’s most frequent collaborator and best friend. The two of them grew apart a little when Beaker got married and started a family, because that kind of thing happens a lot, but they were always fairly close. Beaker has retreated from public life since Rich’s death, and as far as I know he hasn’t done any interviews. So when it came to Ragamuffin, it was probably necessary to leave Beaker out, but that’s a huge chunk of Rich’s history missing. The movie tries to fill in the void with a guy named Justin (Carson Aune), which sort of helps. It’s not the same, though.
When it comes down to it, I’m not sure I’d recommend Ragamuffin to someone who’s unfamiliar with Rich. What I would suggest is getting to know him first, and then Ragamuffin might make more sense. Or it might seem like a cheaper approximation of an artist who is still sorely missed. I’m not sure where I land on this, but I do know I may watch Ragamuffin again.
Another Shamedown is approaching, plus we’re gonna get a little spooky again on Friday, y’all. Thanks for reading, and see you then…
Ragamuffin is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon. For those who might want to get a taste of Rich’s life and music, I highly recommend Songs and Songs 2, as well as the documentary, Rich Mullins: A Ragamuffin’s Legacy, which is available on DVD and free to stream for Amazon Prime customers.
Smith, James Bryan. Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing To Heaven. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2000.