“I Can Only Imagine”

 

            This faith-based film is for the whole family, but it does have some rough edges.  It's the story of Bart Millard, the lead singer of the Christian band Mercy Me. 

            Young Bart (Brody Rose) was the pudgy kid with the abusive father, Arthur (Dennis Quaid), and the mother who loved him, but after a while she just couldn't take the abuse any more.  She left.  Leaving Bart with a Dad who was never satisfied.  Who told him that chasing dreams was a waste of time, because it kept you from facing reality.  Who witheld affection and constantly berated.  Who expected him to play football, and then, when he did, was disappointed if he got tackled by only one player.  He said when he was playing, it took a whole team to bring him down.  Who was never satisfied with anything Bart did.  Bart kinda liked the girl down the street, Shannon, and enjoyed going to church camp with her.  But Bart, when he got older, had a way of pushing her aside, like he did anyone who tried to get close to him.  Yes, disturbingly like his Dad, except at that point, he didn't want to admit it.  But he did love music, and he listened to it whenever he needed to drown out all the bad stuff around him.

            When Bart got older, he got bigger, and played high school football until a serious injury ended his career.  That's when Bart (now played by J. Michael Finley), forced to take an available elective, wound up in Glee Club, where he manned the sound board.  Until the teacher heard him sing, and before he knew it, she gave him the lead for “Oklahoma!”.  Now everybody knew what a nice voice he had.  Soon he was singing in church, even though his Dad still wouldn't come to hear him, considering all that stuff a waste a time (including church itself).  But that little musical success gave Bart dreams of making it big in Nashville.  So he left after high school and tried not to look back, though his father's brooding presence still cast a large shadow over Bart's life.

            Bart soon joined a band that was looking for a singer, and they tried to move from cover songs to some of their own material.  When Bart told his grandmother, Memaw (Cloris Leachman), she just said, “Mercy Me,” so that's what they named the band.  And they enjoyed a little success—had their own tour bus and played some mid-level gigs.  Bart had dreams of making the big-time and getting a recording contract.  But he was told that they just weren't good enough.  His own manager, Brickell (Trace Atkins) tried to tell Bart that he seemed to have a mask on, that prevented him from really connecting to an audience.  Brickell told Bart he needed to find his own authentic voice.

            Bart decided the only way he could “unblock” himself was to go back home and try to patch things up with this Dad.  It wasn't easy.  But Arthur had changed.  He'd found religion, and now that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he wanted to do all he could to make it up to Bart.  At first, Bart was resistant, but then decided he needed that peaceful closure, and he got it.  When Bart's Dad died, Memaw tells him to imagine his Dad in heaven.  And from there comes the inspiration for the iconic song, “I Can Only Imagine.”

            It's a heart-warming story about the power of redemption and forgiveness.  And J. Michael Finley has a beautiful Broadway-type voice.  But he looks way too old for high school.  The child actors are inconsistent, and the editing is problematical, because they flashback to scenes that we didn't see.  The attraction between Bart and Shannon is assumed but undeveloped.  Randy Quaid adds some welcome gravitas, even if his role is to play a despicable person.

            Of course the song “I Can Only Imagine” is unforgettable, and universally inspiring.  Unfortunately, the movie by the same name isn't.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW  Film Critics Association