Oh, what a challenging task it is to analyze a film such as I Can Only Imagine! I come at film on this site (and in my class) from an artistic perspective, and as with all critics and analysts, there are topics and storylines that resonate more deeply for me in some films than others.
Full disclosure, as I am posting this on two websites: I am a Christian who loves Jesus, and I am a film professor with two film degrees from Columbia University. (I’m sure there are folks who don’t think this combination in one person is any more likely than finding a unicorn in one’s backyard.) I am also a musician(singer and pianist) and musical performer. The song I Can Only Imagine didn’t change my life, but I was profoundly moved by it, and still am. To make matters more complicated, I’ve met Bart Millard at a music studio, and spent some time with him and legendary producer Brown Bannister. And I have family connections to both Amy Grant (through my brother) and Michael W. Smith (double—through my brother and my son) who both feature in the film. So while it’s not hard to be clear-eyed about the art, my enjoyment of the film is partly predicated on these personal elements.
Factoid: As I write this, I Can Only Imagine has brought in $60 million, much more than anticipated. Why this is will be left to others.
Briefly, the film covers the story of Bart Millard, composer and singer of the song, from early childhood with a terribly abusive father, through his eventual spiritual and artistic success with this song, the biggest-selling Christian song of all time. As always, a Christian film, especially one that is relatively well-made, is going to be something of a Rorschach test, depending on one’s view of Christianity and Christians, though many critics may try to run from that truth. It’s easy to dismiss poorly made Christian films, as there are so many. And while this film can be accused of preaching to the choir, its story of father issues, self-doubt, artistic struggle, self-defeating behavior, and forgiveness touches on a number of universal themes. Perhaps some reviewers have a hard time with one of its central plot points—that a relationship with Jesus can turn a life around, sometimes dramatically. If I were not a Christian and hadn’t viewed the same thing personally, I might also bring my requisite analytical skepticism to that aspect of the film.
Compared to other “Christian films,” I Can Only Imagine is well-made. Contrary to some folks’ opinions, it is lovingly photographed, and even creatively so at times. It’s generally well-acted as well. Oscar winner Cloris Leachman (yes, she’s still around) has a strong supporting part that requires little of her, though her lovely and surprised reaction to hearing her grandson sing for the first time is a joy to behold. Dennis Quaid as the “monstrous” father has a more challenging part. He’s the angry beast in the first half, and Quaid works hard at it, but doesn’t seem to connect with the personal rage indicated by his actions (which are surprisingly rough for a film like this). As his character begins to walk with God, Quaid gets better. His awkward attempts to be genuinely spiritual and to connect with his son are nicely played, and that famous Quaid smile does get a moment in the sun at the right time. His casting was an inspired choice (no pun intended), as his general likability helps us to stay connected through the difficult parts of the film.
Michael Finley as Bart has by far the hardest task. He’s a close enough lookalike to the real Bart that it works on a physical level. His acting is more than adequate, considering that this is his first film. He captures the anger of an abused young man, and the scenes of him with his band reflect the reality of band life, and the support and teasing that comes with shared work and performance. The whole musical aspect of it, in fact, is probably the strongest part of the film. From composing to listening (and reacting to) honest and even harsh criticism, to recording—it all seems right.
The editing is almost there. There are some well-cut flashbacks that serve to connect childhood experiences and conversations with some later struggles. Most of them work, though some flashbacks are just a few seconds too long, seeming to wait for the audience to make sure they get it. Please, filmmakers, it’s OK to challenge the audience a bit artistically. Shorter, tighter snippets would likely have had a stronger impact.
I laughed at one complaint that the film couldn’t make up its mind on what to focus on: the abusive childhood or the creation of the hit song. Uhhh, they are completely related, and needed to be interwoven. One strength of the film is that it blends these two elements fairly well, and also includes a number of other relatable situations, including Bart’s childhood sweetheart and how that develops into adulthood, how people deal with hotheads, and how adult criticisms can bring up and connect with old abusive memories. Unlike many Christian films, there is little action in churches, highlighting Bart’s home, life on the road, and in the office or recording studio. These are refreshing and realistic settings for the story, and they add to its accessibility.
The script is an improvement over others of its type, though there are problems. Some of the dialogue is witty, strong, and completely believable. Then there are bits of dialogue and turns of action that seem more clichéd and paint-by-numbers than they needed to be. While not setting up the elements of success as done explicitly by Slumdog Millionaire and The Man Who Invented Christmas, the film has fun slipping in the various inspirations Bart eventually makes use of.
Watching—and experiencing—the film brought back other films I’ve seen recently, such as The Post. IMHO, The Post was overrated upon its release by those that were deeply touched by its themes of journalistic integrity, freedom of the press, and the attempts of our country’s leaders to suppress incriminating truth. As someone who thinks our involvement in Vietnam was a mistake, that various administrations lied about it for political advantage, and who as a member of the media (at one time) loves the First Amendment and truth, those themes resonated with me as well. For those poised to find the obvious connections to current events with The Post, and for those who feel most deeply troubled by what they see, the film tapped deeply into those concerns, and many critics were stirred by their responses to the issues raised in the film. I understand that, but also posit that many reviewers and film analysts are swayed to connection with some films and negative reactions to others because of their reactions to the content. Contrary to more than one review, The Post was not a great film, and certainly not one of the greatest of all time.
Like those who experienced The Post through their strong political beliefs, and like other critics that experience films through their own concerns, fear, and likes, I was deeply touched by the themes of I Can Only Imagine, as well as being connected to its music (both because of my history as a musician as well as having enjoyed the song so much). Like Walk the Line, the film connected with me in a way that doesn’t necessarily connect with others, and that doesn’t reflect its value as a well-made work of art) and I need to be aware of those connections and try to not them overwhelm my understanding of the art (as I believe many did with The Post). My faith and my role as a musician greatly connected me with the film, and I “enjoyed” it a great deal, and was deeply touched by it. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t see and point out the film’s limitations; I’d also be remiss if I wasn’t honest about how a film acutely connects with me on issues that I deem eternal, and more profound and significant than any social or political issue.