Veteran Christian band MercyMe’s iconic hit “I Can Only Imagine” is now a film starring Dennis Quaid, Trace Adkins, Madeline Carroll, Cloris Leachman and newcomer J. Michael Finley, opening today (March 16). Penned by MercyMe frontman Bart Millard, the 2001 crossover hit was written in response to his father’s death from cancer and has sold 2.5 million, earning a double platinum certification and making it the best selling Christian single of all time. Quaid turns in a powerful performance as Millard’s abusive father and the film chronicles the singer-songwriter’s turbulent relationship with his dad as well as the band’s rise to stardom.
“It was surreal, to say the least, to be approached,” Millard tells Billboard of his initial reaction to the film about his life. “I thought it was kind of silly at first that there are parts of [my] life someone thought would make a movie.”
Tagged as “The song you know. The story you don’t,” the Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate film was directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin, whose credits include Woodlawn, October Baby and Mom’s Night Out. Country music veteran Adkins portrays MercyMe’s longtime manager Scott Brickell and Broadway actor Finley makes his film debut as Millard.
The real Millard admits that seeing his past come to life during the film’s production was sometimes very unsettling. “It was a little more challenging than I realized, reliving my childhood and the abusive relationship with my father, who was diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school,” says Millard. “That’s when his life completely turned around for Jesus, but there was some hard seasons that I never thought I’d have to relive.”
He credits Quaid’s kindness with helping him gain perspective and reconciling his past with the film process. “The first day I went in, there was a big fight scene where dad broke a plate over my head and it was a little harder to separate myself than I realized,” he admits, “but we got through it and the more I was around it, the more I was able to separate myself and kind of watched as a fan.”
His father had been a local football hero and everyone thought of him as a kind-hearted teddy bear, but an accident left him a different man. “He got a job with the State Highway Department building bridges,” Millard explains. “He would flag cars through at construction sites. He got hit by a semi-truck and was launched about 50 feet. He was so big and strong that he had no broken bones, but he went into this weird coma for about eight weeks and they didn’t think he was going to make it. My mom said before this accident, he was the sweetest guy and never said a foul word, and when he woke up it took about 12 people to restrain him. He had the foulest mouth you could possibly imagine. My mom always said, ‘I married a teddy bear, but went home with a monster.’
“I was born a couple years after that and their marriage didn’t last,” Millard continues. “She was finally just too afraid for her life and that’s when they got a divorce. But my dad was only abusive towards me. My mom always thought that because they had me after the accident, he never looked at my brother who was five years older as part of the problem so he took it out on me [thinking] that I was the one who ruined his life or ruined the marriage or whatever because he couldn’t process it.”
For the sake of timing, this backstory about the accident didn’t make it into the film. “It was Dennis Quaid who pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, no true story movie is done exactly the way it was obviously or otherwise it would be an 18-year film, but just put those precious things that make it a little different, put them close to your heart and in your pocket. Some things are just meant for you and your family and not us.’ And that really helped me understand that process.”
Quaid was also compassionate when Millard watched some of the more violent scenes, particularly the scene where his dad broke the plate over his head and young Bart left the room bleeding. “Dennis starts picking up the plate and he’s kind of bent over and you could tell that he looks so distraught, like there’s something that is going on in him that he can’t control,” Millard shares. “And I’ll tell you when I was sitting there watching that, it really wrecked me watching it live. When it was over, Dennis would always come to me to make sure I was okay and I said, ‘I’d never thought of what my dad could have possibly gone through once I left the room.’ I had this impression of this monster, but then all of a sudden, I had a sense of compassion seeing Dennis act out how my dad had this tortured soul that was in tears trying to clean up the mess that he created. It was really odd and therapeutic. I kind of laugh now and go like, ‘Thank you Dennis Quaid for such wisdom.’ It’s been an interesting journey to say the least.”
Millard gets a chance to share the entire story in his new memoir, I Can Only Imagine, published by W Publishing Group, an imprint of Thomas Nelson. In addition to Millard’s book, the band has a new hits collection, I Can Only Imagine – The Very Best Of MercyMe, that features 13 hits, including “Flawless,” “Word Of God Speak,” “God With Us,” the original version of “I Can Only Imagine” and a newly recorded version of the song created especially for the film, “I Can Only Imagine (The Movie Session),” which is currently being played on Christian radio alongside their single “Grace Got You,” from their album Lifer, which has already spawned the multi-week No. 1 “Even If,” and was named pop/contemporary album at the 2017 Dove Awards. MercyMe took home top prize that night for artist of the year.
“I Can Only Imagine” launched the band’s successful career and Millard is happy the song is enjoying a resurgence. He wrote “I Can Only Imagine” in 1999, but says he had been mulling the title over since his father’s death in 1991. It was originally released as a single from MercyMe’s 2001 major label debut album, Almost There. It peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart No. 71 on the Hot 100. In 2002, “I Can Only Imagine” won Dove Awards for pop/contemporary recorded song of the year and song of the year, and Millard was named songwriter of the year. The song’s success surpassed the Christian market and it became an AC hit that has since been covered by other artists, including Wynonna Judd.
One of the interesting pieces of the song’s history revealed in the movie is that Christian music icon Amy Grant had planned to record the song and release it as a single, but gave it back. “It was on the independent record and we were actually doing a lot of shows and selling a lot of records because of ‘Imagine'” Millard explains. “We got a phone call Amy Grant had heard it and wanted to make it her next ‘El Shaddai’ so I was like, ‘Man we just hit the jackpot!'”
Before Grant released it, MercyMe signed a deal with INO Records (now known as Fair Trade Services) and they wanted it for the band’s debut album, but Millard had promised it to Grant. When Grant became aware of what was happening, she graciously relented. “Amy said, ‘This is your song. You need to finish what you started,'” Millard recalls of the scenario, which became a pivotal scene in the film. Grant had already planned to perform the song during a show she had booked at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium. She invited Millard to the stage to perform the song with her.
“She gave it back and changed our lives forever,” he smiles.
What does Millard hope people will take away from seeing his story on film? “My dad was a monster and I realized if the gospel could change that dude, the gospel can change anybody,” he says. “I just want people to not assume their story is over, especially when maybe they have somebody in their life that they’ve given up on or they think it’s hopeless. If you had me list one person that would never ever come to Jesus [it would be] my dad. I was so angry, hurt and scared of this man that I thought there’s no chance. To see the transformation that took place in his life to being my best friend and the Godliest man I ever knew, it was nothing short of a miracle. So I just hope people don’t give up on people in their lives. As long as we’re breathing there’s a chance.”