(For regular readers, I spent about 20 years as a producer in Christian music, and worked with a legendary, tortured genius named Rich Mullins. He died in a crash after a concert. A film has been made about Rich’s life, and this post concerns that film. We’ll be back to regular “creativity” programming next post)
About a year ago, I got a phone call from a guy named Dave Schultz, who said he was making a film about the late recording artist Rich Mullins. I was Rich’s producer, so I was naturally interested in Dave’s vision. He said he’d call back. He never did. Last night, I went to see the film he made, Ragamuffin.
(Earlier today, I reached out to the film’s writer, Ashleigh Phillips, and relayed much, but not all, of what I’m including here.)
I’ll begin with some impressions of the film, try to set the historical record a bit straighter, and end with a Rich story I’ve never publicly shared before.
About the movie: I walked into the theater with apprehension. Mostly, I didn’t want it to suck. Most “Christian” movies do, of course, because there are so many dramatic problems in message movies. This is true of all message movies, by the way. Try to sit through The Day After Tomorrow. But Rich was a special guy, and a cheesy movie about him would have been painfully ironic.
The movie isn’t cheesy.
It’s flawed - it’s flabby, probably a half-hour too long - and has some other issues. But it feels like a story about a real person, and I recognized that person as the real Rich Mullins. A version of him, certainly - but true in its way. The film has heart. Also: to Ms. Phillips’ credit, there’s very little Christian speechifying in Rich’s film. She deserves a lot of credit for this.
I think making a movie about a person in an existential crisis is about as difficult a task as there is in film. It’s such a weak engine, compared to say, “Saving the World”, or “Getting the Guy Who Killed Your Father”. Hell, Batman combines both. But, “Tortured Artist Finally Understands God’s Love” - that’s got about 1 cylinder, Baby. Yet the Philips screenplay, directed by Schultz, gets that engine to run. I felt stuff watching the film. There are a lot of technically brilliant movies that don’t do that. So, I say, “Well done, guys.” And especially to Ms. Phillips, who had the most difficult job.
Something I wish had been brought forward: how wickedly funny Rich was. My man was King of Sarcasm, and you did not want to be on the receiving end of that (especially women, with whom he had a complex relationship generally). But I can sincerely recommend the movie, and I didn’t think that was going to happen.
Next, a bit of historical housekeeping. The film depicts Rich’s relationship with Reunion Records are far more adversarial than it was. It shows 2 executives, who clearly represent Mike Blanton and Dan Harrell, basically being materialistic jerks and condescending to Rich. They beg him to make “happy” songs and intimate his playing and material could be better. (Unfortunately, a scene like this is in 1 of the trailers). Now, I know this is going to make the heads of some fervent Rich fans explode - but at no time did Reunion pressure Rich to change his music. Ever. I made 8 records with the guy. I was in every song meeting. Obviously, I was present when every note went down. And I never had a single conversation with anyone at Reunion to change one note or word of his music (I was not an employee of Reunion, but an independent producer). You know what Reunion did? Gave us money and left us alone. In fact, I was left completely alone 90% of the time, because to my consternation, Rich was rarely around for a Rich Mullins record (more heads exploding, probably). Every record began with the same ritual: “Please, Rich. Stay in the studio. How am I supposed to do this if I can’t even ask you what you think?” But Rich was remarkably passive in the studio. On the few days he showed up, he left early. Off to pals, and sometimes, a bar.
Mike and Dan were, and remain, businessmen. But the movie gets them fundamentally wrong. If anything - and I shared this in my email to Ms. Phillips - Mike Blanton’s great flaw is irrational optimism - the faith that somehow, everything is going to work out. This is the flaw of every successful producer, though: faith to believe the unbelievable. Yes, Rich and Reunion fought sometimes. But the people there loved Rich Mullins. I watched the film with Rich’s A&R guy on my right, who is as soulful a guy as there is. To my left was one of Reunion’s former staffers, who broke down into tears during the film’s end credits, when some actual footage of Rich is shown. Reunion, as a group of people, loved Rich Mullins. You fight with the people you love sometimes.
I’m the guy on the left with the magnificent porn ‘stache
For those interested in the experience of recording Rich’s Ragamuffin record, considered his greatest work, here’s an interview I recently gave with Christianity Today on that: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/october-web-only/legacy-of-rich-mullins-ragamuffin-band.html?paging=off
Okay, a story never-before shared. Rich wrote a page of prose most days. He had notebooks full of the stuff. Now, it happened we finished a record early in the morning. Rich had a flight out in just a few hours. I left the studio about 3 am, and I was asleep when the phone rang. It was Rich, calling me at 5 am. “I left my notebook in the studio.”
“Okay. I’ll go out and get it tomorrow.”
“No. You have to drive out and get it tonight.”
“Umm, it’s 5 am, pal. I’m exhausted, and anyway, the studio’s locked. I’d have to wake up the manager and I don’t think that would be appreciated. I tell you what. I’ll have the manager get it in the morning and hold it until I get there.”
“Please. You have to get it.”
“I don’t follow.”
“You have to get it tonight, and you have to destroy it.”
“You don’t want it? I thought that’s what this was …”
“You have to destroy it, and you have to promise me you won’t read it. I can’t trust anybody else to do that.”
So, there I was: exhausted after a 20 hour day, at the end of a record, and Rich wants me to drive 45 minutes back out to the studio, wake up the manager (who closed up for us at about 2), get a notebook, and - without opening it, mind you - destroy it. Now, ask yourself? Could you refrain from looking, given what kind of incendiary stuff must have been in it?
I drove out to Brentwood, knocked on the door, got the studio unlocked, retrieved the notebook, got back in my car. Held the notebook on my lap. Knew if I thought about it too long, I’d look. Drove to a big dumpster behind a grocery store and threw it in. Drove home. I never opened the notebook.