Every song tells a story. But sometimes the story behind a given song is more dramatic than the song itself.
That’s the case with “I Can Only Imagine,” the 2001 MercyMe song that surged seemingly out of nowhere to become the biggest-selling Christian single of all time.
But “I Can Only Imagine” didn’t come from nowhere. And even though that band’s frontman, Bart Millard, scribbled out the tear-jerking tune about being with Jesus in heaven in just a few minutes one emotion-filled night, its inspiration was a lifetime in the making.
A painful lifetime.
It’s 1985 when we first meet young Bart Millard as he works in his grandmother’s yard, rides his bike through town (Goonies and Jaws 3-D are playing at the local theater) and makes a Star Wars-inspired helmet out of cardboard. Bart seems a carefree, imaginative kid. A nice kid.
Bart’s mother loves her son’s naturally whimsical nature: “You’re a dreamer, Bart. That’s good.”
His father, Arthur? Not so much: “I’m gonna teach you something, Bart. Dreams don’t pay the bills. Nothing good comes from it. All it does is keep you from all this,” he says, waving his hands around at their rural home in Greenville, Texas, “from knowing what’s real.” And with that, he picks up Bart’s helmet, takes it out to the garbage barrel that’s already burning with trash, and tosses it into the flames as tears stream quietly down Bart’s cheeks.
Arthur’s reality isn’t just informed by the rolling Texas hills. It’s distorted by his own broken dreams of being a professional football player. Those disappoinments shattered his soul, and he has no time for the dreams of others.. Now he spends his days as a mechanic, his nights verbally and physically working out his bitterness on his wife, Adele, and poor little Bart.
Soon Adele ships Bart off to church camp, where he meets a young girl named Shannon who’s quite taken with him. When Bart returns home after a spiritually transformative week, however, his mother has gone. Abandoned him to a father who growls more than he speaks, one who’s more prone to hit than hug. “Mom left,” his dad says simply. “Just you and me now.”
And so it is. It’s a sad fate for a boy, a tender dreamer being raised by a man whose dreams are dead.
But Bart strives mightily to earn his crusty father’s approval anyway, notably by playing football in high school. But when a terrible tackle breaks both of Bart’s legs, the teen’s sole path to pleasing his father smacks into a dead end. In the hospital, he asks his father about his injuries: “What’d they say?”
“They said you can’t play,” Arthur responds coldly.
“For how long?”
“Well, that’s disappointing,” Bart says.
“Yeah, it is,” his dad says, and walks out of the hospital room.
In the weeks and months that follow, though, Bart makes a surprising discovery—one that he hides from his father: He can sing. That undeniable talent eventually leads him to pursue a career in music, following his heart, following his dream.
But in the back of his mind, his father’s voice echoes like a poisonous curse: “Dreams don’t pay the bills,” it whispers. And when Bart, now the lead singer of a band called MercyMe, hits a crisis point, he knows he has to return home and confront unfinished business with his father.
The man he discovers there is not the one he expected to find. In fact, he’s become someone Bart never could have imagined.
Much of Bart’s journey is closely intertwined with his faith—sometimes growing, other times receding. But his hard-but-redemptive story is one that many who’ve struggled through painful family dysfunction will likely identify with.
Arthur truly is a broken shell of a man. And for much of this story, the only perspective we see of him is how that soul-sapping disillusionment with life eats away at him and makes him an ill-tempered, angry bully.
That’s not good, obviously. But the film does realistically depict the consequences of that emotional brokenness, namely his wife’s abandonment and Bart’s deep personal wounds. Bart spends much of the film coming to terms to with how badly his father hurt him. But, with the encouragement of the band’s manager, a Nashville insider named Brickell, Bart decides to return home to try to mend his relationship with his aging father.
Things aren’t easy when Bart gets back, on many levels. But he finds Arthur a changed man, and he’s forced to decide whether he can really forgive his dad for the lifetime of pain that he’s inflicted upon his son. Near the end of his life, Arthur offers Bart a remarkable blessing, saying, “I told you not to follow your dreams, but that’s only because mine never came true.” Then he tells his son that he’s been saving money and has a life insurance policy that should sustain Bart while he pursues his musical career. “And I want you to have that so you can pay attention to your singing. And you’ll get a check every month. So you can chase your dream. And I want you to catch it. Don’t you ever look back. You promise?”
Elsewhere in the film, various characters respond to Bart with patience and grace, even when he’s acting like a self-centered hothead. These include his on-again, off-again, on-again girlfriend, Shannon; his surly-but-wise manager, Brickell; and his surprisingly patient band members, who repeatedly go out of their way to try to help their high-maintenance lead singer get what he needs to heal.
As for Bart, he definitely has some character shortcomings. But he’s also determined and idealistic—even amid his deeply hidden hurts—and he’s willing to receive others’ correction, even when it’s an affront to his pride.
[Spoiler Warning] Amy Grant (played by actress Nicole DuPort) plays a surprisingly poignant role in the film’s conclusion. She’s been given the chance to sing and record “I Can Only Imagine.” During a performance where she’s supposed to debut the song as her “comeback single,” she can’t bring herself to sing it, inviting Bart onstage (he’s in the audience) instead. She says it’s his song, and that it wouldn’t be right for her to take it from Bart.
Faith, fear and forgiveness intertwine throughout this narrative of a young man trying to come to grips with the deep damage his father has done to him.
Bart apparently becomes a Christian at that youth camp. We see him with a Bible, and it’s clear that faith is a part of his life. He sings in church services that are broadcast on the radio. Later on, he learns that his father had been listening to those services, and that Bart’s contribution to them is one element that led the man to find God.
Arthur eventually tells Bart that listening to a particular pastor on the radio also played a part in his coming to faith. He says he’s read the Bible several times (in Bart’s absence on tour), but that he has lots of questions about what he’s read (especially Leviticus, which he says doesn’t make much sense to him).
Bart is stunned by his father’s spiritual transformation, so much so that he struggles mightily to forgive him for all the hurt he’s inflicted. He and his father have a heartrending conversation in which his dad asks, “If God can forgive everybody else, why can’t He forgive me?” Bart responds bitterly, “God can forgive you. I can’t.” But after that (understandable) rejection of his father, Bart discovers something that changes his perspective on his dad, and he softens. He chooses to forgive and spends time taking care of his aging father in his final days.
In the end, Bart’s painful-but-redeemed relationship with his father becomes the primary inspiration for writing “I Can Only Imagine,” a song about what it will be like to be with Jesus in heaven.
Bart and Shannon kiss a couple of times.
One of Arthur’s life mottos is, “Life hits me, I hit back harder.” Unfortunately, that’s true of his relationship with his wife and son, too.
One intense scene pictures him pinning Bart (who’s in high school at this point) to the floor. Other times, we see Arthur standing outside Bart’s room with a belt after a scream-filled argument with his wife (that also includes the sound of things being broken). Arthur smashes and throws things when angry, breaking windows and dishes. One particularly painful moment finds him unexpectedly breaking plate over Bart’s head, resulting in a bloody cut. Another time, he throws a gallon of milk at his son’s head. Bart recounts a story of his father beating him so badly that he had to sleep on his stomach, saying he cried all night long.
We hear the sickening crunch of bones breaking as football players slam into Bart. We see his broken bones in X-rays. At one point, he (humorously) tips over in his wheelchair.
[Spoiler Warning] Bart’s father is dying of pancreatic cancer for much of the film. We see him collapse in a diner, clutching his abdomen and screaming.
No profanity. The closest we get is a use of “gosh.”
No obvious content here, though Bart’s father definitely looks as if he could be drunk in at least one scene.
A flashback involves other horrible things Bart’s father has said to him. Bart remembers his dad saying, “You’re gonna blink your eyes and realize that you’re nothing. And that life has got you nowhere because you chased some stupid dream. Wake up. You’re not good enough, Bart. You’re not.”
As kids at camp, Bart, Shannon and another friend named Kent sneak out late one night. Kent sets off some surprisingly massive fireworks, but there’s never any evidence that they’re caught or that there are any consequences.
Bart often doesn’t listen very well. Whether his bullheaded stubbornness is a character asset or liability can swing wildly one way or another depending on the moment.
I was skeptical.
I was skeptical that a movie based on a song could work—no matter how great that song was.
But I’ll admit it: I was wrong. There’s more to I Can Only Imagine than I had been able to imagine.
Yes, it’s a story about a singer, about the song that put him and his band on the map. Fans of MercyMe will likely love the movie on that level alone. (Though the film takes some dramatic license in spots with the details.) But it’s a lot more than that.
I Can Only Imagine is about the paradoxical link between pain and redemption, between brokenness and forgiveness. We see plenty on each side of that paradox.
For much of his life, Arthur Millard is not a good father. What kind of father smashes a plate on his son’s head? What kind of a father beats his boy senseless? What kind of a father burns something his boy has lovingly created?
But faced with death, faced with his loneliness, faced with his failure, Arthur finds that he’s not beyond the reach of God’s grace and forgiveness, grace that remakes him. Bart says of his dad, “I saw God transform him from a man that I hated into the man I wanted to become.”
It was about right there that I felt a little flutter rise up in my chest.
I’m not gonna cry, I told myself. I’m not gonna cry. I’m not gonna … and, I’m crying.
All of us have broken places inside. All of us stand in need of redemption. All of us have hurt others, and been hurt by them. And I Can Only Imagine paints one picture of what working through that hurt—admittedly, a very dramatic variety of it—might look like. It challenges and inspires me to forgive others and to ask for forgiveness myself in the ways I’ve failed others.
And I imagine I’m not the only one who’s going to have that kind of response.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.