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.
“Where are you living from?” asks Junior Nathan to his son Tony. The young man taps his fist to his heart, and so begins the emotional true story of “Woodlawn”. The film portrays the events that unfolded at Woodlawn High School in the early 1970’s in Birmingham, Alabama. Woodlawn is going through the transition of desegregation, and is experiencing severe clashes between the races. It was on the verge of closing, until a spiritual revival–popular in other cities at the time—came to Woodlawn when evangelist/sports chaplain Hank Erwin offers an invitation to the Woodlawn football team to live another way.
Let me just say up front: this is not a movie that will tap dance around with some vaguely Christian/ religious message. Early and often, filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin (the real Hank Erwin’s sons) want you to know: Jesus is the way…the only way, and they make no apologies for it. As a Christian, this doesn’t bother me and I appreciate seeing a movie where there are lots of characters in real situations– each in their own personal stage of believing or not believing. It’s a refreshing change from the usual portrayals of believers that Hollywood gives as hypocrites who are either impossibly good or unbelievably bad.
Hank Erwin is played very convincingly by Sean Astin (“Lord of the Rings”, “Rudy”), who has become a familiar face in faith-based films in recent years. Whether Astin is a Christian or not, he does an exceptional job in his role persuading others why they should be one and how loving each other can restore unity to the school and the city. One of his most powerful scenes comes at the end at the pre-game prayer rally when Woodlawn is playing their biggest rival, Banks High School. That’s all I’ll say about that scene because if you want to know what happens…you just have to see the movie.
Another veteran actor –and an Academy Award winner no less– has a prominent role in this independent film. Jon Voight (“Coming Home”, “Midnight Cowboy”), who plays the legendary University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, is both poignant and humorous in his portrayal of the man who tirelessly pursues Tony Nathan to play for his team. Nathan is a young man with a talent for running who, in the midst of the racial turmoil around him, becomes a star athlete at Woodlawn. Newcomer Caleb Castille holds his own against the more seasoned actors in the cast with no problems. His Tony Nathan goes from being a soft-spoken football player with doubts about being in a school where he’s not wanted, to being a courageous team leader. If his performance in “Woodlawn” is any indication, Castille has a bright future in films.
Since the story is often told from the point of view of Woodlawn head coach Tandy Gerelds, I don’t want to overlook the work of Australian actor Nic Bishop (“Body of Proof”) in that role. His scenes with Castille are some of the most touching in the film. Kevin Sizemore (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) is his right-hand man Jerry Stearns, who often provides some much-needed comic relief.
Speaking of which, Sherri Shepherd (“The View”, “One for the Money”) gets in some great one-liners as Tony’s feisty mother Louise, and fans of ‘80’s films will recognize the familiar face of C. Thomas Howell (“The Outsiders”, “Red Dawn”), who plays George “Shorty” White. White was the coach of Woodlawn’s rival team Banks High School. In Howell’s hands, White is an over-the top character that lives and breathes football and gives the film some of its lighter moments.
Without a doubt, “Woodlawn” is a very ambitious film. There’s a lot going on here, aside from the obvious issues of racism, desegregation and faith. It touches on prayer in the public schools, domestic abuse, and facing fears head-on—lots of big life stuff. One very important point made is the relevance of fathers (and father figures) in the lives of young people, and how the lack of such relationships can negatively affect them. This is best shown in Tony’s relationship with his father (played by talented actor Lance E. Nichols) and Coach Gerelds, compared to his girlfriend Johnnie (Joy Brunson) who comes from a home with an abusive father and no mother. In a culture where parents—especially fathers—are ridiculed and made to look unnecessary, it’s good to see a film where strong men are raising their sons to be responsible to their families, to each other and to their community.
In fact, it’s really a perfect Father’s Day film, but the filmmakers may not want to wait that long to release the DVD.**
If you plan to see this movie, try to do so on opening weekend (Oct. 16th) because a strong showing at the beginning gets Hollywood’s attention and makes it more likely that films like “Woodlawn” will stick around and more will be made, as in the recent success of “War Room”.
You don’t have to like football (I don’t) to appreciate the message of “Woodlawn”. Some of the most inspiring films seem to revolve around it (“Rudy”, “Remember the Titans”). Next weekend, “Woodlawn” will join that distinguished list.
***NOTE: For more about this film, see last week’s posting on the making of “Woodlawn”.
**This DVD is now available
On the heels of the very successful faith-based film “War Room”, produced by the Kendrick Brothers (“Courageous”, “Fireproof”), another duo of filmmaking siblings is bringing the story of “Woodlawn” * to theaters in two weeks.
Jon and Andrew Erwin wrote, directed and produced the story of Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama during the tumultuous early 70’s when the school was becoming integrated. In a city torn apart by racial strife, the high school becomes the focal point of tension in a time of major change. Based on a true story, Woodlawn High School was on the verge of closing until a different kind of movement began. Against the backdrop of competition, racism and violence, a spiritual revival took place… and it started with the football team.
Jon Erwin was on hand recently when a very-nearly-done version of the film premiered at Legacy Arena in Birmingham at the conclusion of the Restoring Unity event (which was also produced by the Erwins). Prior to the showing, radio and TV host Glenn Beck interviewed Jon Erwin, producer and actor Kevin Downes, and cast members Jon Voight, Nic Bishop, Kevin Sizemore and Caleb Castille.
To say that the release of “Woodlawn” at this time is a miracle in itself would be an understatement. According to Downes, just a year prior to the Birmingham premiere, there wasn’t much to work with, given the length of time it normally takes for a film to go from an idea to the big screen. He said, “Twelve months ago, Jon and I were sitting in a parking lot going, should we shoot this movie this fall so that it could be out for our culture to witness it next fall?… we didn’t have a script, we didn’t have a story, we didn’t have money, we didn’t have a cast. I mean how all these gentlemen came into our cast is nothing short of miraculous and to me, God gets all the credit.”
That may explain how a little independent film of the Christian genre managed to attract the attention of an Academy Award-winning actor to play an iconic football coach. Jon Voight, who plays famed University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, was drawn to the character and work ethic of the Erwins. As he told the crowd in Birmingham, “I looked them up and they had a little video of their work together, and I looked at these guys, and I saw the way that they worked, the kindness to the people that they worked with, they joy they took in their work and Jon said, he said, “here’s how we make film…the best idea wins. So that meant he was collaborative and he was going to engage everyone in the process, which is what you have to have for the very best kind of film.”
It was more Divine Intervention that brought Caleb Castille into the cast. Castille plays Tony Nathan, a young African-American man who is integrated into Woodlawn High School. He goes on to become a star athlete who is recruited by Bear Bryant to play for Alabama. In an odd case of art imitating life, Castille was a football player at the University of Alabama. In fact, it could be said that playing for the Crimson Tide is sort of the Castille family business since both of his older brothers and his father played there. But in early 2013, in spite of his success on the field, Castille said he felt God was leading him away from football towards acting. As he put it, ‘Football was so comfortable to me, right, and through just being sick and tired of being sick and tired, I took the time to grow closer to the Lord, which in essence brought .. a better knowledge of why He put me on the earth.” Castille said he wants to reach people, and believes there’s no better way to do that than to work in films. For this film, Castille was hired to be the stunt double for the original actor, until a last-minute casting decision placed the young athlete-turned-actor into his first starring role.
Jon Erwin and his brother Andrew direct and produce “Woodlawn”, and Jon co-wrote the script with Quinton Peeples. Another of the main characters, Hank Erwin, played by Sean Astin, was inspired by the patriarch of the Erwin family. Hank Erwin was an evangelist, broadcaster and later, an Alabama state senator. The elder Erwin was in attendance at the premiere and later closed with a prayer. His son Jon praised him as a “great dad” and told the audience he’s had a great opportunity to honor him in this film and bring such a compelling story as “Woodlawn” to film-goers. He believes it has a relevant message for today. “It’s a story of an impossible situation…love, the love of Christ conquering hatred and if it happened then, it can happen now.”
“Woodlawn” opens in theaters around the country on October 16th. A review of the movie will be posted here next week.
***For behind-the-scenes geeks only: Check out the new Liberty Belle Blog TV channel on Vimeo for more audio from these on-stage interviews at the Birmingham premiere. There are 2: an un-edited one with a little more audio from Kevin Downes & Jon Erwin who both comment on the “War Room” /“Woodlawn” connection; The edited audio has sound bites from Erwin, Downes, Castille & Voight, who talks about playing Bear Bryant. Both include my own pics from the premiere, as well as photos from various websites, including www.woodlawnmovie.com.
“I was alone, but I wasn’t afraid.” With those words, 4-year-old Colton Burpo begins to tell his father Todd what he saw as he lay on an operating table as doctors worked feverishly to save his life. He sees the doctors working. He sees his parents. And he sees heaven. What Colton reveals of heaven sets off something of a firestorm within his town, and especially within his family, as his father—a small-town preacher, fireman and businessman—tries to come to grips with his own questions of faith and what is really real.
Based on a true story from the best-selling 2010 book of the same name, “Heaven Is For Real” * is a beautiful film from a cinematography standpoint, with lots of sweeping views of Nebraskan farmland and crystal-clear starry nights (though according to the credits, it was shot in Manitoba, Canada). The glimpses of heaven that we see are surprisingly subtle. Many times when Hollywood attempts to deal with the topic of heaven, we get over-the-top, swirling dry-ice-induced fog and puffy clouds, surrounding Christmas-tree angels with harps and golden wings. If you were planning to avoid this movie because you want to avoid the typical campy, clichéd images we’ve become accustomed to, you can be rest assured you won’t find them here. The closest it comes is the heavenly choir singing, but even that is offered up with some humor when young Colton requests his favorite song. That draws giggles from the choir, but I won’t give away what the song is—just go see the movie.
Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award winning actor Greg Kinnear plays the hard-working Todd Burpo. He is believable and gives a poignant performance as a pastor facing multiple personal crises—then has to decide what to do when his son begins to tell him about his visit to The Other Side, and of meeting loved ones he could never have known. His scenes with the young actor who plays Colton, 6-year-old Connor Corum (making his film debut), are some of the most memorable and touching ones. The young actor, with his sweet, innocent face, delivers his lines in such a way that it reminded me of why Jesus said we should all be as little children in matters of faith. Colton tells his dad everything and everyone he saw in heaven in a very matter-of-fact way. Sort of like, believe me or don’t…but this is what happened.
Of course Todd, being a preacher, wants to believe him. After all, he’s told his flock about heaven many times, but when he finally decides to tell the congregation, the results aren’t what you might expect. Each one, after all, has his or her own issues and struggles to really believe.
In fact this is one of the many strong points of the film. I like how it showed the ups and downs of “church-going people”. When Colton needs emergency surgery, his mom (played by Kelly Reilly) calls one church member, who then sees to it that the word is spread to pray for this family. Later on, after Colton’s ordeal and his stories of heaven get around, some of Todd’s faithful congregants become uncomfortable with this literal heaven Colton describes. It should give some encouragement to people—whether you’re a church-goer or not— to know that even a pastor, or a pastor’s wife or a church board member can have a crisis of faith when faced with the reality that heaven is real.
It’s easy enough to talk about heaven and God when they just seem like stories to make you feel good from time to time. But what do you do when life happens, and you’re faced with impending death, or in this case, near death? When you hear the real experiences of real people like Colton Burpo, or you sit beside the bed of a dying loved one, what do you believe then?
I saw “Heaven Is For Real”* yesterday, on Good Friday. Even though it was the early afternoon, it played to a packed theater full of people of all ages. Most people, whether they believe in God or not, have a yearning for something beyond themselves, and a hope that what we can see in this world isn’t all there is to life. It was appropriate this film was released during the Easter season. It inspires, encourages and challenges you to open your eyes, to live without fear…to have faith.
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