I CAN ONLY IMAGINE, US, 2018. Starring J.Michael Finley, Dennis Quaid, Brody Rose, Trace Adkins, Taegen Burns, Madeleine Carroll, Nicole Du Port, Tanya Clarke. Directed by Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin. 110 minutes. Rated PG (mild themes)
In the United States, I Can Only Imagine went immediately into the box office Top 10 and, in its second week, was number three, after Tomb Raider and Black Panther. The audience which responded are the numerous Christian audiences, especially in the more evangelical communities and congregations.
To see the film in Australia, one has to search out cinemas in the so-called Bible areas of our cities.
This is a faith-based film, based on the story of the song, triple platinum in the US, the most popular religious song of recent decades, I Can Only Imagine. At the opening of the film, the composer of lyrics and music, Bart Mallard, is being interviewed by the popular singer, Amy Grant. He tells her that it took only 10 minutes to write the lyrics and to compose the music. Her response is that he did not create it so rapidly but the song is the result of a lifetime.
And so it is.
The film goes back to Bart has a 10-year-old, in 1985. He comes from Texas, lives with his mother and father, his father a violent and sometimes brutal man, his mother a victim of this brutality. Bart develops a hatred for his father, especially when his mother walks out on her family after taking Bart to a Baptist camp where he meets friends, is encouraged to journal, has religious experiences – and he writes “the best week of my life”.
Bart’s father is played by Dennis Quaid, giving a strength of performance to the film. The young Bart is played by Brody Rose. The older Bart is played by J. Michael Stickley in his first film. As we hear him sing, especially when he is persuaded by a teacher, very much against his intentions, to play Curly in Oklahoma and he sings ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning’, we hear a very fine singing voice. (And learn that Michael Stickley has appeared in many Broadway productions.)
When Bart escapes from his father and from the town, he works as a technician which leads him to contact with an aspiring band who are lamenting that they have no singer. And, when Bart joins them as the singer, they begin to have great success, travelling around Texas, drawing youth audiences, responding to the ‘secular’ style of the performance but also to the tone of religious lyrics.
As is often the case in these stories about music, the connection is with Nashville, to an agent (Tracy Adkins rough and ponytailed) who is taken by the performance and organises concerts – but record company representatives feel that Bart is not good enough and the suggestion is that he go deeply into himself and discover what emerges.
This requires him to go back home, leave the band for a time, meet up with his father again and, disbelieving, finds that his father has discovered God. The challenge is for him to forgive his father – something which he had written in his camp journal when he was little. And, so a transformation begins, in Bart, in his father. And, always in the background is the young girl that he always cared for, Shannon (Madeleine Carroll) who goes to college rather than joining him on the road.
And, forced back into himself, and religiously inspired, Bart writes his significant song. The agents are impressed, they contact Amy Grant who is prepared to launch the song but, with Bart in the audience, she invites him up to sing – and, it would seem, he has never looked back after the success of the song and testimonies to its inspiration in people’s lives, marrying Shannon, reunited with his mother, rejoining his band, Mercy Me, 21 hits – and his performing at a White House Breakfast in 2017.
Critics are wary of the word “inspirational” in descriptions of films because they think/fear that this actually means “manipulative”. But there are many audiences who respond to the inspirational, who want to be moved, and find Bart Mallard’s story does this for them quite powerfully. Because the American evangelical tradition is quite extrovert, more introverted individuals and more introverted religious communities might find it a bit much even while they admire what it is doing.
Roadshow Released March 22nd
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.