Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley) is asked how he wrote the song, “I Can Only Imagine”… and he says simply, “It just kinda happened. Lyrics took about 10 minutes, music the same.”
This answer does not satisfy the interviewer who suggests, “You didn’t write this song in ten minutes, it took a lifetime.” And she is right. The story of Bart’s life, his experiences, and his trials are what inevitably led to the creation of the most popular contemporary Christian song ever written. This is that story.
This moving faith-based film is set up as a story behind the song, namely that of Christian rocker Bart Millard’s hit song, but it can best be seen as a father-son tale embodying the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. After watching this engrossing work, I had to lay aside some of my usual misgivings about this genre. This is a far from perfect film that never preaches, but rather, shows the power of the gospel. Yet, judging by the undeservedly low ratings of secular critics, it suffers from the wide-spread suspicion that engenders prejudice against a faith-based film, no matter how good it is.
Starting with an interview in which singer Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley) tells a reporter that it took him about ten minutes to write the hit song that gives the film its name
The film flashes back to his Texas childhood home dominated by his abusive father Arthur (Dennis Quaid). The young Bart (Brody Rose) loves to use his imagination to create things, but his father smashes them during his periods of rage while his mother (Tanya Clarke, “Banshee”) stands by helplessly. Apparently, the boy is sustained by his church attendance, and it is at church camp that he meets the girl who will become the love of his life, Shannon (Taegen Burns).
During one magical evening, with sky rockets bursting close by (their presence never explained), she tells him she is going to marry him (also, the camp seems to lack adult counselors who would have blocked their sneaking out of their cabins at night—oh well, this sequence makes a good story). One of the life-impacting practices she teaches him is to keep a journal.
Evidently the filmmakers were unable to find a young actor to play the teenage Bart, so actor/singer J. Michael Finley takes over the role for the rest of the movie. He is in his 30s, so this was not a good choice. Anyway, the lad, blessed with a stocky build, seeks to please his father, once a college star football player, on the field. Instead of praising his performance, the father drives him so hard that the boy takes dangerous risks on the field, leading to a broken leg that ends his playing career.
Also, as I recall, by this time his mom, fed up with her husband’s abuse, has packed up and left the two of them.
When music teacher Mrs. Fincher (Priscilla Shirer) discovers that the boy has a powerful voice and insists that he play Curly in the school production of Oklahoma, the resentful boy does not tell his father. Arthur discovers this, of course, but refuses to attend the opening of the play.
Finley’s belting out “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” for me was the highlight of the first half of the film, so melodious is his voice. As we hear the song the camera cuts to Arthur discovering that he has cancer, a strange contrast to the uplifting song, as things definitely are not going his way. He keeps the bad news to himself, while continually abusing the boy. And he ridicules the idea of his son’s desire to take up a music career, declaring “Dreams don’t pay the bills!” just before smashing a plateful of food into the back of Bart’s head.
At last unable to endure any more abuse, Bart leaves home on his motorbike.
He tries to keep in touch with Shannon, who has gone on to college, but she refuses to pick the phone when he calls. Bart joins a traveling band called MercyMe, quickly becoming its lead singer and writing many of its songs.
He persuades a veteran music man named Brickell (Trace Adkins) to become their manager, and when the latter arranges music execs to attend the band’s Nashville performance, he over-confidently barges into the after-performance conference where the moguls tell him he is not ready for the big time. Crushed, he decides to quit, but Brickell confronts him, telling him he should quit running away from his painful past and embrace it instead, letting it inspire his music.
Following the advice to deal with his pain, Bart returns home where he finds an unexpectedly changed father. His welcome back includes an appetizing breakfast over which he tries to explain how listening to radio and TV preachers and reading his Bible he has changed his life around. Bart does not buy this, his long-contained anger exploding as he leaves the house.
However, he discovers in his dad’s pickup truck the medical papers revealing the old man has inoperable pancreatic cancer.
There follows a tearful reconciliation and, after Arthur dies, in the pages of Bart’s old left-behind journal, he comes upon the first line of what will become his signature song, “I can only imagine…” Then the “ten minutes” of creating the song
His reunion with his band; their recording and performance of it; the immense response from the public, many who testify to how its message of hope dispelled their despair; Amy Grant’s (Nicole DuPort) embracing of it and then at its premier telling Bart that he, not she, should give its first live performance (this really happened?); and of course, his reunion with Shannon.
As you can tell, I have very mixed feelings about this film, and yet was very much touched by it. My reaction to the much-ballyhooed song itself was much less moving. This was the first time I had heard it, somehow missing it when it came out early in this century. Speculating about how he would feel meeting God in heaven, I found the song less convincing than the story about it—and frankly, would rather see J. Michael Finley in a production of Oklahoma, in which he would not have to strain our credulity by attempting to play a teenager.
This guy really has a set of pipes! But instead, we have him in this film, that, despite its many flaws, demonstrates the power of love and forgiveness to bring about reconciliation. I just wish better writers, less prone to clichés (oh those fireworks!), could have been secured. It is a good film for church folk to discuss, but it could have been so much better.
Rating: PG (for thematic elements including some violence)
Genre: Drama, Kids & Family
Directed By: Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin
Stars: J. Michael Finley, Madeline Carroll, Dennis Quaid
Written By: Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle, Alex Cramer
In Theaters: Mar 16, 2018 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: Jun 12, 2018
Runtime: 110 minutes
Studio: Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR I CAN ONLY IMAGINE
Art can be affirmation, but affirmation cannot be art.
The movie works for the same reason the song does: It lightens the burden of the pain people are shouldering today, and gives them something to look forward to.
This is an interesting idea, executed with a reductive, tin-eared understanding of what constitutes art to go along with a faith-based movie’s reductive, tin-eared understanding of what constitutes entertainment.
Like so many faith-based efforts, I Can Only Imagine suffers from a terminal case of self-importance.