First recorded in 1999, MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” is the best-selling, most-played contemporary Christian song since the invention of the radio, written by a Texan named Bart Millard who fell into singing and songwriting after a high school injury ended his football dreams. Millard’s life story, culminating in the composition of the song, is the subject of the polished, faith-based drama named after it, a movie that caters to Christians and other people who enjoy wholesome stories about redemption.
Bart is played by J. Michael Finley, a Broadway actor with a rich, powerful singing voice that fits his stout, doughy appearance. (He looks like Patton Oswalt and Seth Rogen combined with Jai Courtney.) As a younger boy (played by Brody Rose), Bart was subject to the abuses of his grizzled father, Arthur (Dennis Quaid), who drove Bart’s mother away and told him not to waste his time on dreams (which “don’t pay the bills,” after all). In high school, Bart is cast as Curly in “Oklahoma!” against his own wishes (he didn’t even audition) because the glee-club director overheard him singing along with a Christian rock cassette and knew his voice needed to be heard. He takes to it, though, and after graduating joins a band with Christian leanings (whose members are not important to the movie, their names not given) and hits the road.
The band is struggling to find success when a wise Nashville manager, Brickell (Trace Adkins), tells Bart what he really needs to do is go home and sort things out with his father. Arthur always said that the arts and creativity and stuff were just a way to dodge reality — and sure enough, Bart has been using music to avoid dealing with that fractured relationship. The point isn’t made explicitly (and thank goodness for that), but Bart seems to realize he can’t be a musical ambassador for his Heavenly Father while harboring resentment for his earthly one.
Directed by brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin from a script by Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle, the film sometimes struggles to make its points without exceeding its PG rating. Bart later describes his father as having been a “monster” who savagely beat him, but the Arthur we saw during Bart’s childhood was more of a garden-variety Grumpy Dad with a Belt, the most unsettling parts of his behavior elided. This undercuts the redemption narrative a little, but Quaid’s heartfelt performance makes up for it.
Finley is good in the lead, too, an unlikely schlub with a golden voice who ends up at the top. The film will work best for fans of the song or of Christian music in general (a fictionalized version of Amy Grant plays a key role in MercyMe’s success), but it has enough relatable, not-too-cheesy drama for some crossover appeal, if you can imagine.
(Audience advisory: Cloris Leachman appears in this film as Dennis Quaid’s mother, “Memaw.” She has two or three lines or dialogue and a total of maybe 60 seconds of screen time.)
B- (1 hr., 50 min.; )