What it's about: Bart Millard is possibly the most successful Christian rock musician to ever live, the frontman of the band MercyMe which has sold tens of millions of copies of its nine studio albums. But before fame and fortune, Bart was a normalish guy from a small town Texas who loved football and Jesus. After suffering an injury playing high school football, Bart stumbles into a glee club elective and realizes that he has an incredible singing voice, a talent that he eventually uses to spread messages of love and forgiveness to young Christians. As his band has trouble making their way in the music industry, Bart must find a more personal voice. He looks to his troubled relationship with his father Arthur [Dennis Quaid] and their history of abuse to find the inspiration to finally break through with a song that became beloved across the globe.
I Can Only Imagine is likely going to end up the most successful film of 2018 that you've probably not heard of -- at least had no interest in seeing. It grossed $83M over its theatrical run [it is still in a few theaters despite its recent home video release], which makes it the #11 film at the domestic box office this year, ahead of Game Night, Blockers, Tomb Raider, Pacific Rim Uprising, and many others. This probably parallels general knowledge of the band the film dramatizes, which is apparently one of the world's biggest acts. Strangely enough [or perhaps not], it is entirely based on a song that is apparently very popular, with lots of cross-over mainstream success on radio and pop charts, that I've never heard.
Faith based films have been successful at the box office as they've become more mainstream. Films like Heaven Is for Real and Miracles from Heaven have identifiable movie stars and mainstream movie plots set around Christian messaging -- God's Not Dead or War Room have been successful, as well, but they don't seem to be bridging cultural gaps in the same way. I Can Only Imagine might not be the clearest example of the Christian film cross-over but it is the newest one. While its storytelling might be aimed at an audience larger than that of God's Not Dead, that doesn't exactly make it good.
The premise of I Can Only Imagine is that Bart Millard's life has all built up to writing the song of the same title -- the movie literally opens with a person telling Bart "You didn't write this song in 10 minutes, it took a lifetime." Most of the narrative is a movie-long flashback sequence of Bart's childhood, high school years, and then as a struggling musician. This seems to set up something of an extraordinary life, but the events of the film strike me as a just ordinary, tough life. Maybe that's the point, that Bart's story is universal and that's what makes his art so great, but that's not really how it is presented.
The most prominent way this plays out is through Bart's relationship with his father. The movie speaks multiple times to how Arthur was incredibly abusive, leading to the man's redemption and Bart's forgiveness. Aside from one physical altercation, though, Arthur is played off like a grumpy mean old drunk. Don't get me wrong, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse and I know how having a grumpy mean old drunk of a father is a terrible way to grow up. I Can Only Imagine seems to not want to show us their relationship in an honest way, in a way that matches what the characters keep telling us. The emotional crux of their relationship as told by the narrative is Arthur telling Bart that he's not good enough [there are whole montages full of it] but then there is this other more serious thing we are constantly reminded of but is never actually explored. I realize that if I Can Only Imagine delved more in the physical violence it merely tells us about it would have more likely been Precious than the wholesome and hopeful film it is, that the messages may have been lost.
Another major part of the narrative that comes off completely flat is the romantic relationship between Bart and his childhood friend Shannon. Though the film plays off this relationship as where Bart needs to ask for forgiveness [the counter-balance to his father], it is totally inconsequential. Again, the movie doesn't do any work to make his apology resonate in any way. It wants their love to be something extraordinary and, similarly, Bart screwing up their relationship to be something truly tragic. Really, though, it comes off as a relationship that just doesn't work out, like millions of other relationships.
OK, for some moderate positives. J. Michael Finley, who plays Bart, can really sing. And he has enough likable charisma to lead the film -- he kinda strikes me as a Southern version of James Corden. There is a lot of music throughout I Can Only Imagine and while it isn't my preferred style, it is pretty well produced.
Dennis Quaid is well cast as the bad dad. Cloris Leachman has a few scenes as Bart's delightful Memaw. Her reaction to hearing Bart sing for the first time is one of the best moments in the movie.
Overall, the rise to music fame plot that takes of most of the middle of the movie is pretty generic, with too many easy plot contrivances, a lot of stumbling into initial success and booking important shows or writing an entire set of songs quite literally overnight. Just when MercyMe seems to have their big chance to break through, however, the most painfully didactic scene of the film is inserted, with record execs telling Bart that his brand isn't marketable. The nameless bigwigs could be talking about any kind of Christian art and their criticisms come off entirely as cynical and whiny.
As for the title song, the film nicely teases it out up until the climax -- and there is even a head fake in the final moments. I can only imagine that the target audience of the film came mostly for the song and it isn't heard for nearly two hours. It is probably too far to call this a bold move, but it felt notable to me. When the song is finally revealed it's ... fine.
Jaws 3D and The Goonies show up on the marquee of the local cinema of young Bart. Those movies came out 2 years apart.
I Can Only Imagine isn't quite the first truly successful Christian film to attempt the mainstream cross-over, though you could do much, much worse. If you are totally adverse to faith based film, you could do much worse, too. I Can Only Imagine has strong Christian themes but it stays pretty humanist throughout. You could probably take out any direct mentions of God and the movie's approach to its messages would be basically the same.
The trailers on the Blu-ray are all the kind of wholesome entertainments you'd expect, which geared me up for what was coming: Forever My Girl, Southside with You, The Shack, and Wonder.