Movie Review: I Can Only Imagine

 If you’re a big fan of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), which I’m not, you may readily recognize the song behind this movie. So far it is the best-selling single in Christian music of all time. You may even have some knowledge of Bart Millard’s story and the true events that shaped his life and inspired him to write the song “I Can Only Imagine.” Though I had heard the song, I knew nothing about Bart’s story when I watched the movie. This was probably an advantage because I had no idea how the story would unfold.

The movie explores a very familiar theme: forgiveness. Bart grew up listening to Amy Grant and other CCM artists, whose music helped him escape the reality of an abusive father. We see Bart’s dad burn Bart’s homemade helmet. Later, we hear his parents arguing. Bart lies in bed and braces himself when his bedroom door opens and his dad stands there, belt in hand, clearly considering taking his frustrations out on little Bart. In one scene during an argument, Bart’s dad is on top of Bart and cocks his fist. The fist never connects to Bart’s face, but the viewer gets the picture. Later we hear through dialogue that Bart was once beaten so bad on his back that he had to try sleeping while lying facedown. This detail surprised me because the abuse is never depicted on film beyond what I described. Also, in one scene Bart’s dad breaks a plate over his adult son’s head. Though Bart’s dad is unlikable, has anger issues, doesn’t treat his son very well, and has driven Bart’s mom away, the reality of the abuse is glossed over, so later when Bart calls his dad a “monster,” it doesn’t seem quite plausible based on what we see on screen. Clearly the movie makers wanted to avoid showing outright abuse on camera, but they could have shown Bart taking his shirt off, revealing bruises all over his back. Bart’s real-life older brother, never depicted in the movie, could have said, “Wow, Dad did that to you?” Sometimes dialogue doesn’t convey what the viewer wishes to see to make the plot and characters plausible. The problem is, the abusive background is key to Bart’s story, so if readers don’t accept it, the problem doesn’t give the later transformation the punch it should.

[Spoiler warning] Bart later runs from his dad and joins a Christian rock band called MercyMe. They do gigs but are never quite good enough (so say some Nashville executives). The problem?  Bart’s just not authentic on stage. He needs to work on his issues. (He has also run from Shannon, a childhood sweetheart.) So Bart heads home to settle his dad issues. Lo and behold, his dad has been listening to TV preachers and found God. It’s never quite clear whether a true conversation has taken place, but we don’t see the same dad we saw earlier in the movie. He’s too nice. Bart doesn’t quite believe what he sees, and unfortunately, I didn’t either. Without seeing the forces that transformed his dad, the God-changed-me image seems like a convenient plot device.

At first Bart can’t forgive his dad in spite of his transformation  (“God can forgive you, Dad, but I can’t.”), but an old camp journal reminds him that because God has forgiven Bart, he can forgive his dad. Which he very quickly does. His dad is also dying of pancreatic cancer. Who is left to take care of him but Bart? The change in Bart’s attitude and in his relationship with his dad is too rushed, in my opinion. Character development like this needs more time and struggle. Suddenly, they are good friends, and everything is great. His dad dies, and within days a new song pops into Bart’s head during a moment of grief. It’s the song that will put him on the map. CCM superstar Amy Grant originally agrees to unveil the song at her concert, but at the last minute, she invites Bart on stage to sing it. The rest, as they say, is history. The crowd goes crazy, the song is an instant hit, and Bart even gets his girl, who happens to be sitting in the audience.

The movie’s climax is inspiring. Who can’t help but cheer for a guy who, told he isn’t good enough most of his life, reaches the pinnacle of success? We also can’t help but shed a fear tears as he deals with forgiveness and his father’s death. So all in all, this is a feel-good movie by the end, and I won’t downplay that. As with many faith-based films, however, a spiritual decision unlocks the door to seemingly instant rewards. Real life is messy and doesn’t usually work out so neatly, even with God in the picture.

I understood that the movie was Bart’s true story, but later research revealed several key details movie makers fudged for the sake of storytelling. Bart’s mom and his dad were divorced when Bart was only three years old; she didn’t leave his dad when he was twelve or whatever his age is at the beginning of the film. While it is inspiring to see Bart running after the moving truck, tears streaming down his face, the truth probably didn’t happen that way. He lived with his mother until the third grade, and she had moved out long before this scene. The movie depicts Bart writing the life-changing song seemingly days after his dad’s death. In reality the song came to him seven years later. Amy Grant didn’t interrupt her concert to invite Bart on stage to sing his song. He was invited well before the concert began; there was no surprise, but I suppose that detail wasn’t dramatic enough, so some license was taken. The fact that so many details don’t align with reality tempered my enthusiasm.

Qualms aside, this emotional film pulls on heartstrings and provides a satisfying ending. If you love CCM, you’ll love the music in the movie. Christian rock is dominant throughout. It’s not my cup of tea; nor am I enamored with the Christian celebrity culture. But I could appreciate the movie and its message. There was no profanity, sex, or crude references. I thought the gospel presentation was weak, but there are enough pieces of truth for viewers to perhaps connect the dots. The score, acting, and cinematography are well done, as one would expect. If you get a chance to see Imagine, it is worth seeing. Just remember that much of it has been fictionalized.

One thought on “Movie Review: I Can Only Imagine

  1. Barbara Harper

    Thanks for this, Adam. I’ve thought if seeing it if my husband wants to. I wonder why a filmmaker would change a story for drama when the facts of can be so easily checked.

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