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Review by Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette
Most Christians who grew up in the 90s or before know Rich Mullins as the musician who wrote “Awesome God,” but his life was much darker than his most popular song would suggest. Mullins was an ascetic, even a rebel. He trashed phone booths and drank and went barefoot in church. He may have even smoked as he composed his most famous hymn.
Ragamuffin portrays a tortured Christian composer who sang, sinned, and prayed boldly. However, the film would have made a better documentary: excessive preaching and narration denigrate a compelling story into a slightly depressing, sprawling biopic.
Growing up in Indiana, Mullins finds joy in music. He doesn’t find much joy anywhere else: His demanding father cannot understand his son’s ineptitude on their farm, and he expresses his love by giving backhanded compliments. Once he leaves home, Mullins becomes something of a Christian nonconformist—a Steve Jobs of the music world with even less of a sense of fashion. He responds to the difficulties of life by running from place to place. He heads to Nashville to pursue his music career but flees once he gains the spotlight.
Mullins struggles because he tries to fill his loneliness through friendship and fame and addiction. He tells his one-time fiancé, Jess, that he connects with her because they are both deeply lonely. He becomes upset and even violent when friends leave—they cannot handle his transitory lifestyle, and Mullins cannot face himself until a formerly addicted pastor friend tells him about God’s love. Writer-director David Schultz makes this moral excessively clear: If we have any doubts about the film’s lessons of forgiveness and redemption, Mullins’ unnecessary narration or a mentor’s sermon gladly provides it. When Mullins’ mother tells him that God has a great plan for his life 15 minutes into the film, I realized that the movie would play like an extended sermon.
The message of this sermon is occasionally encouraging but mostly vague. “I am convinced that on Judgment Day, Jesus will ask only one question: Did you believe that I loved you?” Mullins’ pastor asks. “Holiness is really about loving God in the moment,” Mullins adds later. While the Bible agrees that God’s love saves and heals and purifies, all of Paul’s epistles emphasize that the Christian pursuit of holiness involves discipline and suffering as well as love. Believing such quotes at face value may seem comforting, but the film’s philosophy does not portray the full message of the Gospel. This contributes to an overarching feeling of depression: While viewers hear the solution to Mullins’ problems over and over, he remains bound by the demons of his past. For Mullins and for us, hope is long in coming.
Mullins’ gospel sounds more like the philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi, a role model Mullins first met in a movie theater. Like Francis, Mullins turns away from fame and fortune to commune with nature and live among the poor. He prefers to drive an open Jeep than a limo; he wants to feel his toes curl in the dirt. Mullins and Francis both equate poverty with virtue and sharing the Gospel with living a quiet life in pursuit of God. There is something to be said for Mullins’ brand of earthy passion. Christians often ignore how they mix the holy with the profane, how they speak blessings and curses from the same pair of lips. Mullins acknowledges his sin and calls God awesome because Jesus loved and saved him anyway.
Overall, Ragamuffin is a mediocre film. Some of the editing is a little rough; the extras look like they are dressed for the 21st century rather than the 20th. While Michael Koch does a decent job of giving life to Mullins’ character, the rest of the actors struggle through the didactic script. Schultz’s screenplay would have been much improved if it followed another piece of St. Francis’ advice: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”
In a blog post, Schultz revealed how he debated about whether or not to make a film about Rich Mullins. Mullins himself would have hated such attention, but Mullins’ brother Dave became a producer for the film and supported the effort. Schultz finally decided that the film was worth making because Mullins’ story could touch others: “A testimony isn’t ours…. It’s God’s story through your story.”
Schultz’s final product suffers from many of common biopic flaws—an indulgent runtime, a lack of a strong narrative arc. However, it does not suffer from worshipping its subject. Ragamuffin does best when it tells a gritty story about a musician who drew lessons from his pain and praised his God. The film’s preachiness and lack of narrative nuance disappoint, but Mullins’ story of faith and religious passion still peeks through the rubble.