I CAN ONLY IMAGINE review by Mark Walters – the true story behind Bart Millard’s beloved song

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE review by Mark Walters – the true story behind Bart Millard’s beloved song

If you’ve never heard of Bart Millard or his band MercyMe, don’t feel bad, I was only casually familiar with them before seeing I CAN ONLY IMAGINE, though I had definitely heard the song. Growing up in Greenville, Texas, Millard (portrayed by newcomer J. Michael Finley) was the victim of a broken home and abusive father he could never please (played in the film by Dennis Quaid). Bart even attempted following in his dad’s footsteps by playing sports like football, until he suffered an injury that made continuing that practice impossible. In the late 1990s, Millard decided to leave the home of his alcoholic father, even leaving behind his childhood girlfriend Shannon (Madeline Carroll) and beloved Memaw (Cloris Leachman), and find his calling in life. This took him into the world of musical theater, where his singing voice started to take shape.

Bart never imagined himself as a front man on stage, much less a professional singer, but he ended up joining a band, which would become the religious rock group MercyMe. This even caught the attention of a known music manager named Brickell (Trace Adkins), who felt Bart had something special, he just needed to find it within himself. After some time on the road, and failed attempts at a record label, Millard realized he would never progress with the band until he fixed the life he left behind, so he headed back to Greenville to make things right with his father, and the woman he left behind. The events from there would inspire him to write the song that would make him a star, one that was personal and cathartic, and one that everyone could relate to in some way.

The biggest challenge for I CAN ONLY IMAGINE will be audiences labeling it a “faith-based” or religious film, and in many ways it absolutely is, but it’s also an accessible story of inspiration and purpose, family and love, and one that just about anyone could identify with… not unlike the song it’s based on. Co-directors Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin carefully crafted this production so that it never feels heavy-handed or preachy, rather tells its story in a natural and honest way. They never shy away from the darker moments either, as some of the abusive father scenes are pretty rough, yet very necessary to understand where Bart was coming from.

The cast is terrific, featuring seasoned faces like Dennis Quaid and Cloris Leachman, and music icon Trace Adkins for a touch of meta realism – it should be noted that Adkins looks and sounds almost exactly like the real Brickell, so he’s a particularly smart choice. Quaid delivers a fearless reading for Bart’s dad, playing a man who is essentially a monster, but must also go through a serious change in the latter portion of the story. But it’s fresh-faced J. Michael Finley who sells the piece, an inspired choice who came from a career in musical theater productions, and seems like the perfect person for playing Millard. Finley looks and feels like a “real” guy, not a movie star, but he’s also a tremendous actor and really works as Millard regardless if it’s during his high school years or his 30s. Finley and Quaid have a strong interaction with each other in their various scenes, which again is impressive since one is a long-seasoned big screen talent, and another is making their feature film debut.

This is a movie that’s almost certainly shot on a modest budget, but feels like something much bigger. The concert scenes are especially well done, really transporting us into the moment and the grand scale of that environment. The musical score by Brent McCorkle (who also worked on the screenplay for the film) is quite good as well, evoking a sound and feel of 1980s inspirational sports movies, and giving the production a audible appeal that elevates it nicely in the most unexpected places. I CAN ONLY IMAGINE really took me by surprise, as it’s not the film you might expect it be, and much more than you ever think it could be. It reminded me a lot of the family films of the 1980s I grew up on, serious when needed but heartwarming and engaging. It’s the kind of movie that could easily get lost in today’s blockbusters sequel/reboot fare consuming theaters, but do yourself a favor and make an effort to see it. I can only imagine you’ll like it too… sorry, I couldn’t resist.

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE opens March 16, 2018

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.