I Can Only Imagine, C+
Rated PG, 110 minutes
The new faith-based indie film "I Can Only Imagine" tells the story behind the double platinum selling hit song of the same name, written and sung by Bart Millard of the Christian music band MercyMe. On the plus side, it's less preachy than others in this genre and has some touching moments, yet as worthy as Millard's story is, it suffers from a generic rags-to-riches blandness.
Growing up in Texas, Millard (Broadway actor J. Michael Finley) suffers physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father (Dennis Quaid). His childhood and relationship with his dad inspires him to write the hit song "I Can Only Imagine."
Those familiar with Millard's popular song will most likely get the most out of the occasionally uplifting though predictable "I Can Only Imagine" which is also about chasing your dreams as well as forgiveness and redemption. The most inspiring aspect is Millard's and MercyMe's career trajectory, and how the song single-handedly transformed their career from unknown, scrappy artist to fame and success almost overnight in 2001.
Interestingly, the weakest aspect of "I Can Only Imagine" is the family story line, with a glaring disconnect in its narrative in the second act when Millard and his band go off to chase their dreams and then he comes home to a changed father who was once abusive. I'm not denying the change, it just doesn't give insight as to how abusive father (Quaid, doing his best with the lackluster script) went through such a transformation from mother to loving dad, who now encourages his son's passion of music.
Newcomer and Broadway actor and singer Finley plays Millard with bland appeal, and it's hard to replicate Millard's booming, powerful vocals - as a matter of fact - when he finally gets around to singing it in the climax it's a weak version and would've benefited from the real Millard's distinct singing voice. There's no denying the power to the song, as it had crossover appeal, becoming a hit on the country and contemporary charts as well, I just wish the movie had used it more.
The film is far from perfect, but it's far better than many in this genre because it has a story (and not a sermon) to tell; rounding out the cast is country singer Trace Adkins as the group's manager, "Flipped" Madeline's Carroll as Millard's future wife, and even Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman in a tiny part as Millard's grandmother.
Still, if you're in need of some genuine inspiration, I recommend listening to the original version of "I Can Only Imagine" and watching its accompanying music video (which features a photo of Millard's father) versus watching the disappointingly mediocre film version, which plays like a limp cover version of the original.