You wouldn’t need to be a follower of the Christian music scene to have heard the hit song of the same name as this movie. This is the story behind the song that made its debut in 1999, but it took a lifetime to write it for Bart Millard, the lead singer who penned the song for his father, and then turned it into a hit with his band MercyMe.
The film version of “I Can Only Imagine” is brought to the big screen by the Erwin Brothers, Jon and Andrew, who’ve had some previous success with “Woodlawn” in 2015, “Mom’s Night Out (2014) and “October Baby” (2011). They seem to have a knack for finding backstories, as they did in “Woodlawn”, and also for putting actors with no film credits into their starring roles. Just as Caleb Castille—a football player-turned-actor—excelled in “Woodlawn”, J.Michael Finley gives an outstanding performance as Bart Millard, playing him from his teens through young adulthood. Finley’s background is musical theater, and that works for this character.
The story follows Millard’s life from about age 10 when he was growing up in Texas with a father who was frustrated and angry…and he took it out on Bart and his mother. She eventually leaves the home to get away from the abuse, but doesn’t take Bart along. Her last encounter in the film with him is quite touching, as she drops him off at a Christian camp, reminding him of her love for him. His experiences there end up being life-changing: not only does he find faith in Jesus, but he meets Shannon– the girl he’ll one day marry. The scene with young Bart and Shannon on the bridge is humorous and sweet and reminds us of simpler, more innocent days. Incidentally, the young actors who play Bart and Shannon as kids (Brody Rose and Taegan Burns) did great jobs in their respective roles.
It can’t be understated how well the performance of veteran actor Dennis Quaid (“A Dog’s Purpose”, “Soul Surfer”, “The Right Stuff”) comes off here. Quaid plays Bart’s father Arthur, who goes from being a “monster”, as even the real-life Bart described him, to being “the father I always wanted” (also Millard’s own words). From scenes of some of the aftermath of one of his bursts of anger at home, we know that he was once on his way to becoming a football star…until life, as it so often does, got in the way. As a result, he lashed out at home and tells Bart repeatedly why he must stop dreaming. Bart, a creative kid who excels in art and loves music, doesn’t know how to relate to his angry dad, and Arthur similarly doesn’t understand his son.
The two battle it out for years, but if you’re worried about there being a lot of violence and depictions of the abuse at home, I can say that this is surprisingly kept to a minimum, with maybe a couple of times where you are just caught off guard. So while it doesn’t show much of that, it’s certainly understood that Arthur has some serious anger issues.
The real beauty of this movie is in the redemptive message—a theme that is popular during the Easter season, as it should be. While Bart is off pursuing his dreams of a music career, Arthur is going through his own changes. After one really disappointing setback, Bart decides it’s time to return home to make things right with his dad once and for all. What he finds is a new Arthur, not the monster he grew up knowing. Again, both Finley and Quaid do an excellent job of conveying Arthur’s rebirth, and Bart’s need to forgive him for the past and embrace their newfound relationship. I don’t think it’s a spoiler alert to say that Bart wrote the song “I Can Only Imagine” after being inspired by something his grandmother said at his dad’s funeral. That song would not only change his life, but the lives of millions.
This review won’t be complete without mentioning the performances of a few supporting actors that stood out to me: Trace Adkins, the country music star who is really a very good actor too plays Brickell, the band manager/ mentor who is both kind and curmudgeonly; Cloris Leachman, as Bart’s quirky and faith-filled grandmother, who always says, “Mercy me!”, unknowingly giving Bart his band’s name; and Priscilla Shirer, Christian speaker and author who became known as an actor for her lead role in “War Room”—she plays Bart’s choir teacher Mrs. Fincher, who doesn’t allow Bart to keep his musical gift to himself.
“I Can Only Imagine” left me feeling uplifted and inspired because the message I took away from it was that there is no better way to honor our loved ones who are now gone than to pursue our God-given dreams.
If you’re looking for a great family outing this Easter weekend, this movie is it. If you’ve ever had a dream and were told to forget it…if you’ve ever had to forgive someone…or if you just like a good story, then it’s worth the price of admission.