Ah, so that’s the song. Up until just a few moments before writing these initial impressions, I’d never heard this song. Or, maybe I did, I just didn’t realize I did. I don’t often listen to the radio, and even when I do, it’s typically jazz, and something’s telling me I wouldn’t have ever heard this on those stations.
If there’s any of you out there in the same boat as me, that have never heard this song, here’s a little background on it. The song was written and composed by Bart Millard, the lead singer of the Christian rock band MercyMe, who have been an active band since the mid-90’s, though didn’t make it big until the early 2000’s. This song was released in 2001 on Christian radio and then then in 2003 and 2004 transitioned into more mainstream stations and is considered to be the most popular Christian song of all time, having sold more than 2.5 million copies and is certified 2x platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the only Christian song to achieve this as of 2018. In short, uber popular, probably a big deal for a lot of people.
To me, it’s an okay song. Kind of a standard Christian-Jesus song. My ears aren’t bleeding, so I’ll chock that up to a win. I’m pretty indifferent toward it as it stands. But I’m clearly in the minority and Hollywood has decided to give the story behind this song a movie. I can’t say I’m surprised.
The story looks like it’s about Bart basically explaining his life story with his cold and abusive father, which lead up to the famous song.
Here’s the cast. Starring, we have J. Michael Finley (acting debut; congrats, sir) and Dennis Quaid (A DOG’S PURPOSE , PANDORUM , THE PARENT TRAP , JAWS 3-D , and upcoming films KIN  and THE PRETENDERS ). In support, we have Cloris Leachman (THE COMEDIAN , SKY HIGH , THE IRON GIANT , YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN , BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID , and upcoming films GAME OVER, MAN!  and THE CROODS 2 ), Trace Adkins (DEEPWATER HORIZON  and THE LINCOLN LAWYER ), Madeline Carroll (MACHINE GUN PREACHER  and RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION ), and Priscilla C. Shirer (WAR ROOM ).
Now for the crew. Co-directing are Andrew (also co-editor) and Jon Erwin, who is also co-writing, and are known for WOODLAWN (2015) and MOMS’ NIGHT OUT (2014). Erwin’s co-writer, composer of the score, and co-editor with Andrew is Brent McCorkle, known for only a couple things, neither of which I’ve heard of. Finally, the cinematographer is Kristopher Kimlin, known for WOODLAWN and MOMS’ NIGHT OUT.
Overall, the movie looks like it could be harmless, and doesn’t seem to be overly preachy. It also doesn’t look like it’s going to be particularly amazing. At its core, it looks like any typical biopic about a musician who had a dream and was told they couldn’t do it. Actually, that’s any “struggling artist” story. Dennis Quaid looks like he’ll be good though. At the day’s end, I’m not expecting anything good, but nothing bad. It all depends if the movie is secretly hiding a lot of preaching.
This is my honest opinion of: I CAN ONLY IMAGINE
Set in 2001, told in flashback by Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley). As a child (Brody Rose), he suffered from his mother abandoning him to his abusive father, Arthur (Dennis Quaid) which is something he’s had to endure all his life. By the time he graduated high school, he left his father, his life long girlfriend Shannon (Madeline Carroll), and his town behind. Eventually, he found his way to a fresh band called MercyMe and became their lead singer. Eventually, they gain the attention of a famous music manager named Brickell (Trace Adkins), who thinks they’re not ready yet, but thinks their niche is in Christian songs.
Mmph… I’m still kind of processing this movie. I have no idea how I feel about it.
I suppose one good way to start is the acknowledgement that as far as faith-based films are concerned, this is far from the worst. In fact, it may be one of the better one’s I’ve seen these last couple years. I say this because the very foundation of religion, as I understand it, is all about love, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, all that good stuff. This movie does exactly that: showcase a story about a man who learns to forgive his abusive father after he finds religion. So it’s definitely a film with good intentions and delivers on its kindhearted message.
There are some small, but good moments. Like when young Bart (Brody Rose) is being driven by his mom to camp where he just tells her, “Can’t we just drive and listen to music?” I thought that was a really sweet and innocent request that doesn’t pan out the way he wants. I also give credit to Finley, for a big screen debut, he’s not… unlikable. Okay, he’s no Marlon Brando, but there is a charm factor to him that gets you sucked into his performance and personal struggles, his comedy, his energy and passion, so kudos on that. And he and Quaid do seem to have really good chemistry together, so their later scenes do play off really well and do get an emotional reaction out of me. I admit to a tear or two coming out of me.
I suppose my main complaint about the story, however, is that the movie is a little too focused on Bart’s journey, when it would have been wiser to show Arthur’s arch as well. I think the message isn’t as strong as it could have been because all we really see as far as Arthur finding God is a single twenty second moment of him listening to the radio. That’s all well and good, but how did that lead him to the pews of a church? To making an active effort in reading the Bible? To really wanting to make things right between him and Bart? I feel like, “I listened to a single song on the radio” wasn’t really good enough. Wouldn’t there be some initial hesitation? Some rejection of the big man in the sky? Wouldn’t it be a little more powerful to see how he learns to throw himself into his faith and give it the shot he feels he needs to give? In a lot of ways, the more interesting story doesn’t really belong to Bart, but rather his father. It could have been an interesting character-study on how someone who never thought twice about Heaven, or God, or anything of that nature, and is then… trying. He sees it as that way of bettering his life both for himself, and the son that he’s wronged for most of his life.
Unfortunately, what we get is a man who for a majority of his run time is a cruel monster who is likely so because he never made it to play professional football. The last time we see him before Bart returns is Arthur throwing a plate at the back of his own son’s head, causing him to bleed. The next time we see him, he’s awkwardly trying to make breakfast and that he’s calmly telling him, “I’m trying.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not handled poorly, as Quaid is great in his performance. However, this is a pretty big leap in character that we never truly get to experience with him. Instead, we get a fairly standard “struggling artist” movie, as it appeared to be. In retrospect, it’s very uninteresting compared to the struggles of what Bart had to carry with him while he was on the road with MercyMe.
There are smaller issues with the movie. For example, there’s a movie theater marquee that reads “Goonies” and “Jaws 3-D,” which came out in 1983, not 1985 where the scene in question takes place. Unless JAWS 3-D got a second release two years later because of its incredible popularity, which… no, if you’ve seen the movie, just no. It wasn’t popular in any way. This is basically just a weird reminder that Quaid was a youthful actor who was in it and had really sweaty pits. Also, did a kid seriously reference THE TERMINATOR (1984)? First off, in a church-going community like this, I highly doubt that any parent would let their child see a violent movie like, THE TERMINATOR… unless it was a modified TV version. There’s also some weird moments like when young Shannon (Taegen Burns) introduces herself and says, “I’m Shannon. Duh!” Uh… no, there’s no “duh” in there because this is the first time we’ve been introduced to her. Also, it is highly distracting that Finley is supposed to play an eighteen year old young man, despite his solid performance. This is pretty hilariously acknowledged when a friend of his comments that his beard makes him look like he’s thirty years old. Well, this is because he is. Finley was born in 1988. He’s at least thirty years old. But yeah, his obvious age gap between him and his character isn’t something I got used to. Also, did the inspiration for the song really just come from him writing “I can only imagine” a crap load in his notebook? I know, the song was written for his dad, but he flips through his notebook and all we see is “I can only imagine” written a bunch of times. It feels like an odd detail that could have been omitted, even if it’s the truth.
Overall, I can’t say that this movie is amazing. I think it doesn’t go far enough with its own message of forgiveness by leaving out the journey of the man who inspired the song and focusing on details that don’t seem to matter. As a biopic about the band MercyMe, it’s uninspired. As a biopic of Bart Millard, it’s passable. But I really believe this should have been a joint story about Bart and his father and their mutual journey in finding peace with each other. The actors do well, and I can’t pretend that the emotional moments aren’t there, it isn’t incompetent with its theme. I wager if Pure Flix was going to tell this story, it’d be loaded with demonized Atheists and persecution complexes, so this movie really could have been worse. As it stands, there’s some good and its negatives are on the nitpicky side, so everyone is welcome to take my words with a grain of salt. As a recommendation, I say, it’s not a bad watch. I’m not regretting seeing this movie, but I acknowledge that it had some room for improvement. I don’t see myself seeing this again any time soon, nor will I own it on Blu-Ray, but it’s not bad. The song you know, the story that… feels only half told.
My honest rating for I CAN ONLY IMAGINE: a strong 3/5