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Review: ‘I Can Only Imagine’ hits faith-based notes yet loses sight of big picture in tracking song’s inspiration

Bart Millard (John Michael Finley) on the band’s tour bus in the new film I CAN ONLY IMAGINE releasi
J. Michael Finley in the movie “I Can Only Imagine.”
(Lionsgate / Roadside Attractions)

“Based on a true story” is the bread and butter of the faith-based film genre. As more and more of these films get made, thanks to companies like Pure Flix, and Christian moviegoing audiences add to their popularity, more and more true stories about the miracles of religious faith are required.

Which seems to be how the film “I Can Only Imagine” came about. Directed by brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, this film follows the story of Bart Millard, frontman of the Christian rock band MercyMe, and how he came to write the band’s breakthrough single “I Can Only Imagine.”

Broadway performer J. Michael Finley makes his feature film debut as Bart, and as he’s asked about how he came to write the song by his idol, Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort), he flashes back to his early childhood. Though he may have written the song in 10 minutes on the road in a retro-fitted school bus with his bandmates, it took a lifetime of experiences to create it, as he’s reminded by Grant.

“I Can Only Imagine” isn’t quite a biopic of Millard, as it only focuses on the hardships of his childhood that led him to write the song. Those experiences are primarily the harrowing physical and emotional abuse that he suffered at the hands of his father, Arthur, played by Dennis Quaid.

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If the film is affecting, it’s due to Quaid’s dark, committed performance as an incredibly troubled man. As he lashes out at his son, destroying the things he loves, hurting him physically and even worse, psychologically, you see that this man is in a mental prison of his own design — defensive, violent, insecure.

There are some storytelling issues that crop up in a nearly two-hour film that focuses on the writing of a single song. The script by Alex Cramer, Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle focuses heavily on the abuse, and Arthur’s ultimate, hard-fought redemption. But the parts about Bart’s relationship with God and the gospel saving Arthur are glossed over and simplistic.

Finley, who has a Sean Astin-like appeal, does fine in his screen acting, but boy, can he sing. The musical performances are a highlight, but few and far between. The interesting thing, for those who are unfamiliar with the song, is the way the film builds it up. Grant says it “blew her soul wide open.” When we finally hear it, it’s a very catchy and well-written Christian rock tune, but it’s not “Amazing Grace.”

The film gestures at the ways that the song has changed people’s lives, but never explicitly explains its impact, beyond describing its incredible chart-topping success. In focusing solely on the origin story of the song, we can only imagine, but not understand, the ways in which it’s touched listeners.

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‘I Can Only Imagine’

Rating: PG for thematic elements including some violence

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Playing: In general release

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