One of the best perks of attending the National Religious Broadcasters’ Convention is getting to see films before they’re released. That was the case last month when I was fortunate enough to attend a premiere screening of I Can Only Imagine, the film named after the hit song by Christian band MercyMe. I Can Only Imagine, from filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin (October Baby, Woodlawn, Moms Night Out), opens this Friday, March 16. I will see it again – probably twice – this weekend. And as the theaters fill, I will look forward to seeing what God will do with this powerful message of hope, redemption, and forgiveness.
“My dad was a monster. And I saw God transform him.”
There, in the words of Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley) to Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort) is the theme of I Can Only Imagine. It is the story of God’s amazing grace, of the redemption of a lost and broken soul, and of the power of forgiveness to change both a father and a son. It is the complete story behind the song.
Finley came to the film straight from the Broadway production of Les Mis. With his husky build, sweet and sad face, and powerful voice that previously resonated as Jean Valjean, Finley’s perfect as Bart, the lead singer of MercyMe.
Dennis Quaid is masterful as Arthur Millard, Bart’s abusive father. Quaid portrays with frightening realism the angry monster described by his traumatized son, but with an underpinning of the bewilderment and self-hatred that also marked the real-life father. Bart only later discovered that his father, a Texas football hero known as “Bub,” suffered a tragic personality and temperament change after emerging from an 8-week coma. Arthur was hit by a diesel truck while flagging cars for the Texas highway department when Bart was a toddler and was never the same afterwards.
In I Can Only Imagine, young Bart (a heartbreaking Brody Rose) is left with his father after his mother Adele (Tanya Clarke) leaves their home in Greenville, Texas. Bart endures brutal beatings as punishment for transgressions and more beatings for no reason. There are only two bright spots in his young life, both with long-term impact: Shannon, the young girl (Taegen Burns) who becomes the love of his life (Madeline Carroll) and who is Millard’s wife today, and the music that brings him hope and comfort.
Bart dreams of being a singer after his high school teacher Mrs. Fincher (Priscilla Shirer) casts him as Curley in Oklahoma!, but his dream is ridiculed by his father. Bart leaves home and joins up with a very talented but as of yet undiscovered band to form MercyMe (named after the favorite expression of his Memaw, played by a delightful Cloris Leachman).
In addition to the film screening at the National Religious Broadcasters’ convention, (NRB) special guest Dennis Quaid spoke about his experience as Bart’s tormented father. Quaid told NRB attendees that he took the part of Arthur Millard first of all because his mother told him he should do this movie. Speaking with interviewer Eric Metaxas, Quaid continued that he also did it because he believes in the story. “I’m a Texas Baptist boy from Houston,” the actor exclaimed. Quaid was even inspired to finish a gospel song that he had been writing for his mother for a number of years.
And it is beautiful to see how the power of God transforms Arthur Millard into the father that his son has always wanted, and gives Bart the grace to forgive. In the film, MercyMe’s manager, Brickell, (Trace Adkins) tells Bart he needs to resolve his past in order to successfully move on from the pain. But the young singer receives a surprise when he returns home. He finds that his father is not the man he remembered, but a man with faith in Christ, deeply sorry for what he did to his son.
At first Bart is not moved by his father’s gestures to atone for the past, whether an elaborate, lovingly-prepared breakfast, the placement of photos and concert clippings of his son around the house, or the fact that his father now prays and reads the Bible. Arthur has come to terms with his past and with his mortality. He has terminal pancreatic cancer. He knows that God has forgiven him, but he needs Bart’s forgiveness before he can truly forgive himself. “I want to make things right with you and me,” he tells Bart.
Arthur pleads, “God can forgive anybody, can’t He forgive me?” and the words haunt his son who does indeed believe in the forgiveness of God. When Bart discovers his father is dying, he realizes he only has one chance to have no regrets when his father is gone. At that moment, he lets go of the pain and hurt, and chooses to love and forgive. Bart experiences reconciliation of unimaginable beauty and joy with his father until Arthur dies in 1991.
Millard confessed that he was angry with God for finally giving him the dad he had always wanted and then taking him away. But Memaw’s exclamation at the gravesite, “I can only imagine what Bub is seeing now!” starts the healing process for Bart’s loss. Those words never leave him, and years later, when he decides to write a song, he finds that he has written them on every piece of paper he possesses.
Before the preview screening of I Can Only Imagine at the NRB convention, MercyMe performed the song that Millard wrote for his father almost 20 years ago now. It is breathtaking to think of how many times “I Can Only Imagine” has been listened to since then. The song topped both Christian and mainstream charts. In April 2010 it went platinum, the first single by any artist in the Christian music genre to do that. In 2014 “I Can Only Imagine” was certified 2x platinum.
Even without knowing the incredible story of Bart and his dad, there is something undeniably special about the song “I Can Only Imagine.” MercyMe’s drummer, Robby Shaffer, revealed in a 2004 interview that when the song crossed over to the secular stations, a prison guard wrote to the band about the impact it had in the cellblock. The article explained:
As the guard walked past the cells, he found some of the prisoners on their knees worshiping, some weeping and others just sitting in awe. “When you hear this and realize God is using you more than you could ever think, it’s not hard to know you are not in control of your career — God is,” offers Robby.
Now Millard’s courageous revelation of the whole story in the film I Can Only Imagine does indeed hit you in a place that you don’t even have words for, to quote Quaid. No words maybe, but an image – in one of the closing scenes of the film.
Bart has been invited on stage by Amy Grant to sing the song that he wrote for his father. The faces and enthusiastic cheers fade away and Bart sees his dad, free of the ravages of cancer, dressed in a shining white shirt and jeans (naturally), and beaming at his son. It is a beautiful story. A story of joy in the end.
(Find theaters and showtimes — including some lucky communities in which the film is released on Thursday, March 15, on the official website.)