Judge Patrick Naugle is a picker and a grinner.
His life was a whirlwind.
Rich Mullins lived only 41 short years, but in that time his influence in Christian music was immeasurable. Mullins grew up in rural Indiana, raised by Quaker parents, and born into a life that pointed inevitably towards blue collar farming, like his father before him. Yet Mullins wasn't content to tend the land; his penchant for music took him to heights that most musicians can only dream about. His songs were covered by a multitude of famous Christian artists—including Amy Grant—and eventually Mullins found solo success and the admiration of his peers. Unlike other squeaky clean Christian artists, Mullins' almost bohemian style—warts and all—seemed to endear him to his fans. Rich Mullins career was continuing an upward trajectory when his life was cut short by a tragic car accident on 19 September 1997. Over fifteen years later, Mullins legacy continues. In 2014 Ragamuffin, a film based on Mullins life, was released.
Ragamuffin, like a lot of other biopics, skims over the life of its subject at a nearly breakneck speed. It's hard to take 41 years and sufficiently cover all of the most important beats, although the film certainly gives its best effort. Mullins' life from a small farm boy to a devoted yet broken Christian musician is covered, each beat given a few brush strokes before moving on. The film was produced with the cooperation of the Mullins family (Rich's brother, David Mullins, is one of the film's producers) and while it never reaches the dizzying heights of some of the best biopics, Ragamuffin is still a respectable look at a musical prodigy whose life was cut all-too-short by tragedy.
The themes explored in Ragamuffin are sometimes dark and complex, especially given Mullins' public Christian persona. The topics touched on are raw: a father's inability to communicate with his son; a son's desire for his father's acceptance; loneliness, isolation, and a fear that you aren't worthy of God's love. For a film dealing in Christian themes, Ragamuffin often barrels full speed ahead into the gaping dark maw of the human heart. Ragamuffin also doesn't eschew Mullin's vices, either; the singer is shown smoking cigarettes, cursing, and drinking to a point of excess. While some conservative viewers may frown upon this, there's no doubt that it gives Mullins an extra added layer of depth and humanity. There are some surprisingly emotional beats that Ragamuffin hits, including a heartbreaking scene where Rich heads off to a retreat with author Brennan Manning and is asked to write a letter to himself from his deceased father. Rich's love life is touched upon briefly, but the woman in the film who plays his love interest was apparently a conglomerate of different girls in Rich's life (so it's hard to know how accurate that relationship actually was). The final moments of Mullins life (which includes real life singer Mitch McVicker, playing himself, who was in the car with Mullins when he died) are handled tactfully and respectfully.
Michael Koch (in his feature film debut) plays Rich as a broken man, a follower of Jesus who knows he's loved even in his imperfections. The real Rich Mullins lived not as a rock star but as a working man; Mullins told his manager to pay him the same yearly wage of an average blue collar American worker (he never actually knew—or really cared—how much money he made in his lifetime). Mullins wore dingy white undershirts and jeans with a mop of tangled long hair. Koch seems to be in touch with Mullins spirit, and his performance is above average for a relative newcomer. Other supporting players of note include Wolfgang Bodison (A Few Good Men) and James Kyson (Shutter) as record label execs trying to wrangle in Rich's sometimes difficult personality traits, and writer/director David Leo Schultz (Not Another Not Another Movie) as one of Rich's college buddies, Sam.
Ragamuffin is far from a perfect film. The production values sometimes betray the story, especially during specific time periods (the 1960s and 1970s look a lot like 2014). Rich Mullins' father John, portrayed by Mel Fair (Super 8), comes off as almost too chilly and distant. There's a fine line between being a caricature and a character, and Fair sometimes straddles it too far to one side, making John Mullins the film's villain. The musical segments are good (performed by Koch), although considering how well I know Rich Mullins' catalog it's a bit disappointing not to hear them in his voice.
The old clichéd statement "preaching to the choir" seems to be apt for Ragamuffin. Viewers will find the film far more fulfilling and intriguing if they have a working knowledge of Mullins and his music. I'm glad that writer/director David Le Schultz didn't take the easy way out and paint Mullins with a broad, easy brush; it's clear that the goal was to show Rich Mullins as a man of human frailty, a Christian as troubled and broken as they come. For a Christian film (a term that brings shivers down the spine of many movie fans), Ragamuffin is better than average fare.
Ragamuffin is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen in 1080p high definition. For a film of a considerably lower budget, Ragamuffin looks far better than anticipated. The film seems to flip flop from brightly lit moments to darker scenes at night or in the rain. Overall, the image appears sharp and crisp without any major defects to hinder the viewing experience. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround in English. Ragamuffin is often a front heavy drama that is punctuated by nicely sonic musical moments (Mullins' songs are used, but he's not the performer). Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Extra features include a short "making of" featurette, some deleted scenes, an audio commentary with David Schultz and David Mullins, and a message from David Mullins.
Ragamuffin finds a delicate balance between its religious themes and offering up an authentic version of its subject. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
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