This strenuously uplifting biography tells the story of Texas-born singer-songwriter Bart Millard, taking its title from his best-known recording, which became the most-played Christian single in history and a staple in many church services. The group with which Millard recorded “I Can Only Imagine” is called MercyMe, which is what you might be inclined to exclaim as the movie’s final credits roll.
Millard, played as a young boy by Brody Rose and as a young man by J. Michael Finley, is abused by his angry, alcoholic father Arthur (Dennis Quaid) on their rural Texas farm. After a football injury in high school that compels him to switch classes, he’s virtually forced by the choir teacher Mrs. Fincher (Priscilla Shirer) to take the lead in the campus production of “Oklahoma!”—where he earns applause for his singing—but, after further berating by Arthur, runs off to make a life for himself, leaving his hometown sweetheart Shannon (Madeline Carroll) behind.
Finding his way to Tulsa, he links up with the MercyMe band and eventually persuades manager Scott Brickell (Trace Adkins) to take them on. Despite initial rejections from record producers, Bart and the band persevere and eventually get support from Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort), who insists that it should be Millard who introduces the titular song instead of her. The record becomes a smash and the rest, as they say, is history in Christian music circles.
Juxtaposed with this trajectory of professional success is Bart’s eventual winning back of Shannon and his reconciliation with Arthur, who after a cancer diagnosis has found religion and wants to make amends to his son. It’s Arthur’s end-of-life experience that inspires Bart to write the lyrics to “I Can Only Imagine,” which is about what the experience of heaven might be like.
For a so-called faith-based film, this one is fairly well-made. Jon and Andrew Erwin direct without much style but obvious professionalism, and Kristofer Kimlin’s cinematography is atmospheric, even if the Texas scenes (shot, like the rest of the movie, in Oklahoma) aren’t completely convincing. The editing by Andrew Erwin and Brent McCorkle (who also did the overemphatic music score) has a tendency to plod, but the movie has points to make, of course, and a deliberate pace must have been thought necessary to convey its earnestness.
The picture benefits from the presence of Finley, a Broadway star (with stints in “Les Misérables” and “The Book of Mormon” to his credit) whose acting might not be terribly subtle but whose voice has quality. Adkins will appeal to the music base, while Quaid lends his typically broad emotional style to the mix. Cloris Leachman adds her customary pizzazz to a few scenes as Bart’s grandmother, and Shirer some verve to the teacher whose influence changed Millard’s life.
Nonetheless this remains a movie that’s unquestionably preaching to the choir as directly as Millard’s song sings to it. It has a bit more appeal to a broader audience than most faith-based pictures do, but not much. Those moved by the message of MercyMe’s smash single, however, will undoubtedly be touched by this approximation of the story behind its composition, however many liberties might have been taken in the telling.