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In 2001, the Christian rock band MercyMe released the single, “I Can Only Imagine,” an inspired song that rose to the top of the charts. The tune has since been certified 2x platinum (over 2 million copies sold) and is the only Christian single to ever reach this milestone.
Now the story behind the most popular Christian song is being turned into a movie, I Can Only Imagine, set to release this Friday, March 16. The film follows the life of the lead singer/songwriter of MercyMe, Bart Millard.
The movie is a touching work that explores the themes of redemption, faith, and the triumph of the human spirit. J. Michael Finley, who plays Bart, gave an especially thrilling performance for his big screen debut. His voice, seasoned on Broadway and very similar to Bart Millard’s, sends shivers through the viewers in every scene he sings.
We had an opportunity to sit down with Bart and ask him a few questions about his story and the upcoming motion picture.
The movie spends some time depicting your upbringing and the difficulties you faced throughout your early life. I’m sure while you lived through it you never expected to tell this story on the sliver screen. What was it like for you to see it all come to life before your eyes?
It was surreal to say the least. You know, it’s not really something you can prepare for. I just thought it would never happen. I never even got my hopes up, thinking “They’re not going to make this movie. That’s crazy.” But then about two years ago when the Erwin brothers got involved it just started picking up speed. I still can’t believe we’re sitting here talking about it and I’m just happy how it ended up. I really think the redemption story is worth being told.
What did you think of J. Michael Finley in that role? This seems to be his big screen debut. Do you think that this brought something extra to it, seeing as how the movie is about your big break?
Yeah, I thought he was fantastic. They wanted someone who could actually sing the part and he was Jean Valjean in Les Misérables on Broadway when he got this part and we went up and saw him perform that. The two of us hit it off. We felt like brothers, we were so similar it was almost eerie. We got very close and it was super exciting.
When Dennis Quaid came into the picture I thought, “Man, he’s gonna kill it,” and I really think that Michael went toe-to-toe with him and did a great job.
Speaking of Dennis Quaid, what do you think your father would have thought of his performance?
I think he would have thought the whole thing was too much of a big deal, or that it’s not a story worth telling. He would have been flipping out that Dennis is portraying him. He probably woud have been the same way I was, thinking that this is crazy.
I think the performance [Quaid] gave was so good. I think my dad would have probably been a little bit embarrassed from the standpoint of, “Why would you be talking about me at all? I’m a nobody.” But I think he’d be proud of the performance for sure.
How involved were you in the making of the movie?
In the actual making of the movie, by that point I was just along for the ride. As far as the script goes and all the research of the stories, I was a big part of that. Especially for Dennis who, you know, his character isn’t alive anymore, so he didn’t have anyone to ask questions and learn about, so he would really lean on me, like “How would dad react to this?” and stuff like that.
Has the experience of working with the script and the actors led you to any new insights or inspirations about your faith or your craft?
I don’t know if I’ll be involved in another film, but the creative side of me was drooling like a kid at learning how it works. I’d love to be able to tell more stories on this platform. I’ll always write and make music because that’s what I love, but you never know, we’ll see.
You grew up listening to Amy Grant, in fact you seemed a little star struck in the movie when you first met her. What was it like for you when you realized that you weren’t just her fan anymore, but you were a peer in her eyes?
Man, the reactions on the screen are pretty similar to what really happened. The first time I met her there was an actual argument I had with Smitty about what he wore during a tour he was with her on when I was a kid. Then when she wants to record the song … that whole thing was very realistic as far as how it happened and the emotions I felt.
To be able to call her a friend after all this stuff now is just crazy. I mean I was a super fan. I can’t express what she meant to me growing up and her music and how it was like “this is what I want to be.” Lead Me On is one of the best albums of all time. So yeah it’s crazy that we’re friends. It’s even crazier that she’s such a big part of this story and I get to sit with her and watch the movie with her and kinda relive the story again.
As a Christian artist your performances inspire audiences everwhere you go. How has the experience of being a Christian artist affected you? Is there any moment that sticks out to you?
The crazy thing is the response from the crowd every night is different. You know the song was written so long ago, but still you can see when someone has lost a loved one, or whatever the case is, and then it’s come to life to them. That’s hard to deny and it will always be moving. So whether I feel like singing [“I Can Only Imagine”] or not, to see people react to it is pretty insane and never gets old. I jokingly say it’s almost like a drug. You become addicted to that feeling of just writing songs that will hopefully outlast you and seeing them impact people. You just never get tired of it.
As far as specific performances, man, one that comes to mind is being a part of the last couple of Billy Graham Crusades and getting to share the stage with him. Especially one of the last of them, he was in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl. My son, who was two at the time, and was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes and I didn’t think I was going to be able to go, because we were in the hospital for the whole week learning how to take care of him.
The ministry called and said “Hey, we would love to fly you in and you can sing the song or not, but Dr. Graham just wants to pray for you and pray over your son.” So, crazy as it sounds, a jet comes to Dallas and picks me up. I leave like that at 5 or 6 p.m., I get to Pasadena and walk out, Dr. Graham’s there, he prays with me and we walk up and literally sing like two songs.
I’ll never forget singing “Imagine” then. It wasn’t about what anyone in the crowd did. It was about what just happened to me and my son being home, my life changing forever. It was like, for a guy who sings a song a lot and gets tired of it, that moment right there was all for me. I was just a basket case for so many reasons. Then I walked off the stage, went back into the plane and was home by midnight. That’s the one that doesn’t happen every day and was really special to me.
What are you listening to now?
Man, what am I listening to right now? Gosh, that’s a great question. I’ve been given a new Hawk Nelson record that’s not out yet and I love it. I’ve got 5 kids, so my whole world revolves around the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman right now. At least it’s not Frozen, so I’m okay with that. At this point, when you sing for a living, you’re pretty much prisoner to whatever your kids want to listen to, because I’m like, “I’m musiced out so whatever you want to listen to.” So we’ve got a lot of Disney and show tunes right now.