“I Can Only Imagine” tells the backstory of how a song came to exist. Not just any song but the best-selling Christian single of all time. Relatively unique among faith-based films, it’s a decent addition to Hollywood’s most hit-or-miss genre — the music biopic — that abruptly ends where the first-act break typically occurs in such movies: before the once-humble singer gets too big for his britches, caves in to temptation, and starts using drugs and/or cheating on his wife (since, for once, those tiresome clichés don’t seem to apply). Instead, this movie’s message is all about inspiration and forgiveness, which should satisfy a decent contingent of the moviegoing public grateful for a wholesome story with a happy ending.
Fans of the title song already know how “I Can Only Imagine” turns out — that is, what happens once MercyMe front man Bart Millard writes the lyrics to the track that will launch their debut album to triple-platinum status. But even newbies (such as this critic) may be impressed to learn how Millard (embodied by musical theater actor J. Michael Finley) managed to give so many Christians the words to express a love they find more powerful than any earthly romance: the anticipation they feel for the day when they will get to meet their heavenly father.
In Bart’s case, it was deepened by the fact that his earthly father was such an abusive monster (played here as a grizzled piece of beef jerky by Dennis Quaid). How exactly the song got discovered has been conveniently refashioned to suit the movie’s feel-good narrative. “I Can Only Imagine” was not an instant success but “sat quietly on their indie record for eight months before they ever played it live,” according to Millard’s website. Bart was not an only child but the second of two kids. His mom filed for divorce when he was three, rather than walking out on their family when he was 13 (so the scene where Bart runs out and collapses to his knees in the middle of the road as her moving van pulls off in the distance probably didn’t go down that way at all). And so on.
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But this is not a documentary, and though faith-based filmmakers are perhaps held to a higher standard of honesty than their wayward Hollywood counterparts, it’s standard practice for biopics (especially hagiographic ones made with the involvement of the musicians they depict) to simplify and streamline factual details for the sake of drama. In the case of the Erwin brothers, “Woodlawn” directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, these guys have a pretty good sense of what works for their audience — and what works is adversity, humility, selfless acts of kindness, and the idea that the inexplicable force most screenwriters think of as fate is in fact all a part of God’s grand design.
So, while borrowing actual details from Millard’s memoir (published a month before the movie came out), Jon Erwin and co-writer Brent McCorkle (“Unconditional”) have treated the story almost like a parable, stressing how the small-town Texas boy’s newfound faith — discovered at praise camp, where he also met childhood sweetheart Shannon (in the movie’s telling, at least) — gave him the strength to deal with his father’s regular beatings.
A high school football star whose own dreams were crushed by a serious accident in later life (omitted here), Bart’s father, Arthur, is surly, unpleasant, and quick to anger. One-dimensionally evil at first, he’s like a character in a Stephen King novel, although the film takes no pleasure in depicting his abuse — apart from one awful moment in which he breaks a plate across the back of Bart’s head. Instead, we see the damage on Finley’s face: Bart has carried this trauma with him his entire life. And it serves to deepen the reconciliation between father and son, portraying that final stretch together as the relationship they ought to have shared all along. (Fact check: Arthur actually died when Bart was 19, eight years before he wrote the song that comes pouring out of him here.)
Appearing in his first screen role, Finley has considerable stage experience (he made his Broadway debut in “Les Misérables”), but his charisma doesn’t quite translate to screen — which is a problem, since it’s the defining quality of his character. Whether intended as winks to the audience or not, the movie includes a few amusing lines that acknowledge the fact he appears so much older than his high school-aged character (“Seriously, that beard makes you look 35,” a friend tells him after football practice) and doesn’t look particularly convincing when singing (“That can’t be his real voice!” remarks one observer).
It lifts the entire enterprise to have an actor of Quaid’s caliber involved in a film like this. Actually, it’s even more satisfying to see Cloris Leachman pop up as Bart’s Memaw, whose chicken-fried expressions give MercyMe its name, and might also have inspired the title of its most popular song. Trace Adkins is also a nice addition as Brickell, the Christian music producer who sees potential in MercyMe before anyone else does, elevating platitudes such as “Let your pain become your inspiration, and then you’ll have something people can believe in” with his no-nonsense baritone.
Later, none other than Christian superstar Amy Grant becomes Bart’s biggest champion, although by this point, the movie has transitioned into shameless mythmaking territory (some might argue that it’s been there since the opening scene, when actress Nicole DuPort tells Bart, “You didn’t write this song in 10 minutes. It took a lifetime,” before flashing back to his Amblin-ized childhood). Poetic license aside, so much of Millard’s story is simultaneously relatable and optimistic that 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.