‘I Can Only Imagine’: Film Review

Dennis Quaid plays an abusive father in ‘I Can Only Imagine,’ a drama based on the background story of the hit Christian pop song recorded by MercyMe.

“I Can Only Imagine,” recorded by the band MercyMe, is the biggest-selling Christian pop single of all time. It’s a very nice song. It is not, however, the second coming, which is how the film dramatizing the background story of its composition makes it seem. Like so many faith-based efforts, I Can Only Imagine suffers from a terminal case of self-importance.

The story revolves around the band’s lead singer Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley), who in the film’s opening scene tells fellow Christian performer Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort) that he wrote the song that changed his life in only 10 minutes.

The Bottom Line

Mercy me.

RELEASE DATE Mar 16, 2018

“You didn’t write this song in 10 minutes,” Grant replies. “It took a lifetime.”

I know what she means. I Can Only Imagine runs less than two hours, but it feels like a lifetime.

The story then flashes back to Bart’s unhappy childhood when he was growing up with his abusive father Arthur (Dennis Quaid) and a mother who left both of them when he was an adolescent. Even as a child, Bart loved music, but his father would have none of it. “Dreams don’t pay the bills,” Arthur tells his son. It’s one of many lines Arthur utters that signify what a miserable son-of-a-bitch he is, along with such gems as “Life hits me, I hit it back harder.” It’s no wonder Bart grew up to be a pop star. Everything his father says sounds like the title of a country song. You can also tell how mean Arthur is by his perpetual stubble. Not a beard, not five o’clock shadow, but carefully groomed stubble that’s always the same exact length. There are male models who don’t pay as much attention to their facial hair.

Bart aspires to a football career so as to please his dad, but an injury sidelines him permanently. Later, when a teacher accidentally hears him singing, she immediately casts him in the lead role of Curley in the school production of Oklahoma! “You have a gift, Bart,” she tells him (this is the dialogue, folks) and seconds later he’s enthralling a packed auditorium with his rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.”

After graduating high school, Bart leaves his childhood sweetheart Shannon (Madeline Carroll) behind — they meet as children, and their first kiss is accompanied by fireworks going off in the background (I kid you not) — and goes out on the road with his band named for his cute grandmother’s (Cloris Leachman, still going strong at 91) favorite expression. Along the way, they pick up a manager (Trace Adkins, displaying a nice comic touch) who shepherds them to Nashville, where they lay a big egg. The manager tells Bart that he needs to use his emotional pain for inspiration, so Bart heads home to find closure with his father. But not before asking his bandmates to wait for him.

“So, we’re still a band?” one of them asks. “No, we’re a family,” Bart replies. (Again, I’m just quoting.)

Upon returning home, Bart finds his father a changed man, as signified by his lack of facial hair and a homemade breakfast of frittatas and cinnamon buns. (Obviously, no one who cooks frittatas could possibly be bad.) It seems that Arthur has found God, thanks to a terminal cancer diagnosis. The movie treats this like a major life turnaround, but am I the only one who thinks deathbed religious conversions don’t count? Like someone once said, there are no atheists in foxholes.

Bart and his father quickly form an intense bond, a good thing because the old man dies not long after. Bart’s grief inspires him to write the titular song, which Grant chooses to be her next single. But just as she’s about to perform it live for the first time, she summons Bart from the audience and tells him to sing it instead. “It’s not just the song that’s special, it’s you,” she tells him (that’s about when I threw up in my mouth). Bart performs the song, the audience genuflects, Shannon comes back to him, and Grant is so moved that she gives the song back to Bart so he can record it with his band. It’s a scene so corny it makes vintage MGM musicals look gritty.

The film, directed in plodding fashion by “The Erwin Brothers,” doesn’t shy away from a single predictable emotional beat. But it does shy away from fully depicting the extent of the father’s abuse. Although Bart refers to being beaten as a child, the only moment of violence involves Arthur hitting him over the head with a plate when he’s a strapping young man. The film essentially undercuts its chief message by being coy. By the time I Can Only Imagine ends with Bart seeing his dead father beaming at him from the audience (he looks great, heaven agrees with him), you can only imagine how the movie could have been any worse.

Production companies: Lionsgate, Erwin Brothers Entertainment, South West Film Group, Mission Pictures International, LD Entertainment, City on a Hill
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: J. Michael Finley, Madeline Carroll, Trace Adkins, Priscilla C. Shirer, Cloris Leachman, Dennis Quaid, Brody Rose, Tanya Clarke, Jason Burkey, J.R. Cacia, Nicole Duport
Directors: The Erwin Brothers
Screenwriters: Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle
Producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Daryl Lefever, Cindy Bond, Kevin Downes
Executive producers: Travis Mann, Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin, Raymond Harris, Scott & Holley Ellis, Bill Herren, Tony Young, Scott Brickell, Simon Swart, Michael Flaherty
Director of photography: Kristopher S. Kimlin
Production designer: Joseph T. Garrity
Editors: Brent McCorkle, Andrew Erwin
Composer: Paul Mills
Costume designer: Anne Redmon
Casting: Beverly Holloway

Rated PG, 110 minutes