‘I Can Only Imagine’ captures the extraordinary redemption story behind writer’s Christian song
Michael Wahle March 24, 2018
In 2001, Christian rock singer Bart Millard and his band MercyMe released a song entitled “I Can Only Imagine” that transcended the genre in unprecedented fashion, peaking at No. 5 on the national Billboard Hot 100. The song was downloaded by hundreds of millions of listeners, both Christian and otherwise.
Now, 17 years later, fraternal directing team Jon and Andy Erwin have created a film that shares not only the title of the Millard’s chart-topping song but also, perhaps, its astounding crossover appeal.
The fifth feature film from the Erwin brothers, “I Can Only Imagine” chronicles the life of Millard (newcomer via Broadway J. Michael Finley), specifically his complicated relationship with his embittered alcoholic father Arthur (Dennis Quaid), which transformed from being one marked by abuse and resentment throughout Bart’s youth to, miraculously, a showcase of love, friendship, redemption and forgiveness when Bart was a young man.
Any faith-based film in contemporary film runs the risk of isolating non-Christian audiences, and indeed, several such films in recent memory have unfortunately suffered from being overly preachy and divisive.
“I Can Only Imagine,” on the other hand, feels like something unique.
Yes, some of the film’s early notes ring a little familiar — the physically and verbally abusive father drives Bart’s mother out of town, and the depreciating self-worth Bart feels as a result manifests itself in saying things he doesn’t truly mean to his high school sweetheart Shannon (a dynamic Madeline Carroll).
But as Bart’s music career takes off — a passion which is interestingly prompted by a football injury that forces the varsity jock to find a new afterschool activity and, in turn, his tremendous raw talent for singing and performing — the film follows suit.
The Erwin brothers smartly let the incredible story, brought to life by the adept cast they’ve assembled, speak for itself, steadily driving the tour bus on a truly heartwarming journey.
Stops along the way include Bart and his band MercyMe getting invaluable, career-altering advice from a successful, brutally honest record producer (country star Trace Adkins) who eventually becomes their manager, as well as Bart’s efforts to win back Shannon, who never lets Bart off the hook but simultaneously never lets him out of her heart.
And then, of course, there’s the heart and soul of the film: the 180-degree change that takes place within Arthur who, unbeknownst to the traveling Bart, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, which inspired him to re-examine his life, rediscover his religion and repair his fractured relationship with his son.
Unexpectedly, he is given the opportunity to do so when Bart, stressed out by the constant rejections he and the band are facing, returns home for a brief hiatus.
Witnessing Arthur’s extremely humbling efforts to mend his relationship with Bart, not to mention Bart’s even more challenging undertaking to grant his father forgiveness for the past, is an absolute pleasure to behold, and pays off in triumphant ways that ultimately serve as the inspiration for Bart as he pens his eventual smash hit.
Quaid’s character comes across as a touch on the nose in the film’s early going, but the veteran actor really sells Arthur’s transformation and earnest desire to change. And despite having no prior film credits to his name, Finley matches Quaid’s energy at every turn.
Together, the two actors craft a relationship that, though it shifts dramatically from adversarial to loving throughout the course of the film, is certifiably believable and, more importantly, utterly relatable.
It’s this very relatability that made the song “I Can Only Imagine” a national phenomenon, and gives the film bearing its name at least a fighting chance to do the same.
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