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Film review: I Can Only Imagine

10 August 2018

Stephen Brown sees a biopic set in the world of Evangelical music

J. Michael Finley as Bart Millard in I Can Only Imagine, on current release

J. Michael Finley as Bart Millard in I Can Only Imagine, on current release

FAITH cinema from production companies that specialise in sugary evangelistic films is not my cup of tea, but I enjoyed I Can Only Imagine (Cert. PG). Named after the bestselling Christian single, it is the life story of the composer-singer Bart Millard, of the MercyMe band. He is played by J. Michael Finley, currently starring in the West End show The Book of Mormon.

The film is likeable because it has the hallmarks of an old-fashioned musician biopic. All such films have a young prodigy who has to overcome antagonism — put-downs and violence — here supplied by Bart’s abusive father, Arthur, played by Dennis Quaid in frighteningly bad humour. Not even the love and prayers of Bart’s girlfriend, Shannon (Madeline Carroll), his Baptist church in Greenville, Texas, or the school where he plays Curly in Oklahoma can build his self-esteem.

Next, in biopic form, our hero overthrows restraints on his art. Bart stands up to his father and leaves, but also rejects Shannon. Taking off to Oklahoma City, he experiences an arduous and testing time before achieving fame. This heralds the retirement-and-comeback phase. MercyMe’s manager, Scott Brickell (Trace Adkins), tells Bart to stop running away from Arthur’s malignant influence. “Let that pang become your inspiration.”

Bart returns to Arthur, who, in the mean time, has become a committed Christian, giving his son hope that, if Jesus can change his father, the gospel can change anybody. Out of this comes the eponymous song imagining what heaven will be like. It may have been written in ten minutes, but Nicole Duport as Amy Grant, “the Queen of Christian Pop”, tells Bart that it has taken a lifetime to find expression.

J. Michael Finley as Bart Millard and Dennis Quaid as his father, Arthur, in I Can Only Imagine

On his return to performing, his song leads to unprecedented success; but the grand biopic finale is yet to come. Bart’s heart aches for Shannon. We can’t leave the cinema before that reconciliation scene. It all sounds like painting by numbers, but it isn’t. It would be disappointing if the scenario were more like real life.

Like most films based on a true story, there is a significant reshaping of the facts. Who cares? Witness The Greatest Showman, so popular despite its questionable version of the circus-owner P. T. Barnum’s life. What matters is how the story is told and what its underlying message is. I Can Only Imagine is about hope and redemption. Lest we fail to get it, the opening credits have told us this, and Amy informs an audience that this song is “pure hope”.

The way the Erwin Brothers (October Baby, Moms’ Night Out, and Woodlawn) direct this film, it hardly matters that the main characters are all (or become) Christians. There is little content to what it means, except that forgiveness ensues, as it does in many films in which Christian faith is never mentioned. Perhaps those others implicitly relate the gospel message, while the present one dares us to imagine a world where Christianity redeems us.

I can only imagine what it will be like, when I walk by Your side. . .
I can only imagine, what my eyes will see, when Your Face is before me!
I can only imagine. I can only imagine.
Surrounded by Your Glory, what will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you, Jesus? Or in awe of You, be still?
Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing “Hallelujah!”? Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine! I can only imagine!

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