“Surreal would probably be the best way to describe it,” Bart Millard explained when we talked about how it felt to see his life on display on such a public level. “I never thought any of this would take place; especially 17-18 years since we released the song,” he adds referring to this year’s enormous success of the big screen movie, “I Can Only Imagine,” the telling of his life story and based on the song, “I Can Only Imagine,” an enormous hit song for his band MercyMe. The group made history in 2014 as “I Can Only Imagine” surpassed two million digital downloads, making it the first song in Christian music to go platinum and double platinum in the digital domain.
The 5X GRAMMY® nominated band has seen its success continue to flourish, most recently being named Top Christian Artist at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards in May. From a music industry point of view, all of this was and is an impressive feat but from a personal perspective, all of the success wasn’t telling the entire story. The full narrative was still to be told.
After his parents divorce and his mom left, Bart experienced abuse at the hands of his father, starting in third grade. Several times a week, Bart was beaten, somedays missing school because it hurt too badly to put clothes on. Although the relationship with his mom was strained, Bart moved in with her after a beating so severe that Bart thought his father was going to kill him. Not unusual for children of abuse, Bart missed his father and moved back in with him in the sixth grade. By that time, the physical abuse stopped but the emotional abuse was the worst when his dad told him he didn’t care anymore. This was more painful to him than any strike of his father’s hand.
Telling his life story in a setting as public as a large movie screen was something he had to digest. Bart had to adjust to the idea of having this very private part of his life on display.
“I was approached by a producer from Hollywood, years ago, after she heard the story somewhere, maybe when we were on the road, I’m not sure, and she said she thought there could be a movie in the story,” he recalls. “I remember we were like, ‘Yeah, good luck with that!’ and never really gave it much thought,” he recalls.
The producer was serious however and continued to call once or twice a year for quite a while. As things eventually began to progress, it struck Bart that his story was about to be told. “It hit me that things I’ve tried to bury my whole life were about to be shared,” he said. His intensely private story of abuse at the hands of a father, who by all accounts was a good and kind man earlier in life and who was forever changed by an accident prior to Bart’s birth, was about to be shared in the most expansive of ways.
Bart’s father, a former star football player with a bright future, was injured playing ball and that changed the trajectory of his adult life. He eventually worked for the highway department where one day he was hit by a truck while working. “I was born after the accident,” Bart says. “After college, I went back to see the doctor I’d had my entire life. He said to me, ‘I’m not sure if you knew this but your dad was in a coma for eight weeks, your mom had to sign papers in preparation for his passing,’” he recalls. “He literally came to one day, perverted, an animal waking up. I’ve always been told he was a dear Christian man before that. I’ve heard about PTSD or the concussion stuff you hear about with being hit. We didn’t know what it was then. I didn’t have that reference until I was probably in college. It was a weird sense of relief to find it may have contributed,” he says.
In that same eight-year process, Bart and his wife Shannon were going through the grief process after her brother was killed in a car accident. During that counseling, Bart remembers the counselor saying, ‘Let’s talk about your childhood,’ and my first reaction was to say something like, ‘Let’s not,’” he recalls. “It really wasn’t until 7 or 8 years ago while going through that entire grief process that my wife Shannon fully realized the entirety of my story. It forced me to deal with things I didn’t want to deal with,” he adds.
The story telling process was a healing journey for Bart. “It helped get the story to the place of being a redemptive story that I wanted people to hear about. People at home started asking my mom how she felt about it,” he recalls. “I was scared my mom would have a hard time with it. The first edit was done last August. I flew to Texas and sat down with her and asked her what she thought,” he recalls.
The one area of control that Bart had during this wild ride was veto power. If something didn’t feel right or wasn’t staying close to delivering the truth, then he could decide to change course. Life has changed a great deal since those days in Texas. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that two years after he returned to live with him, Bart’s father was diagnosed with fatal cancer and while still rocky, as he became sicker, his father changed and their relationship grew stronger. Eventually receiving his dad’s encouragement to pursue his dream of music – something his father has always claimed to be worthless. The man that was a monster to him became his best friend.
At his father’s graveside, Bart’s grandmother, an integral presence in his upbringing, said, “I can only imagine what he’s seeing now.” Bart became obsessed with the phrase, toyed with it for years, and finally wrote the song in 1998. It would be a life changing song like no other.
He has a relationship with his mom now and she is actively in his life and he didn’t want to hurt her in the process of releasing the story. When talking with his mother about the movie, she said with tears in her eyes, “’I wish it would have been different but it wasn’t,’” he recalls. “She gave me her blessing to do it.”
The words of Bart’s Grandmother, Leona, his dad’s mother, became the name of their band early on as she used to proclaim “mercy me,” about things, “Both my grandmothers were the female roles in my life. For time sake in the movie, the Mamaw in the movie represents both of them,” he says. “After school, I’d be there. My dad’s mom was the only one who could tame the lion, so to speak. She came to my defense more times than I can remember. She was the spiritual anchor. I knew somehow God was in this. After dad died, we lived in that house together until I went off to college. She paid for my college. She literally funded the band for many of those independent years. She was my sense of humor,” he says lovingly about Leona. She passed away in 2003 and his maternal grandmother, Ruby, passed in 1999.
As preparation for the movie grew closer, Bart also had to consider how sharing his story would affect his own children. “They always hear about the dad who was the most important man in my life. Not the dad from my younger life.”
Actor Dennis Quaid plays Bart’s father in the movie and in other interviews has said how much the entire cast and crew wanted to get it right for Bart. Knowing he was telling such a personal and painful story, it was important to all of them to bring it to life in an authentic way that would stay true to Bart’s life.
“He’s amazing,” Bart says of Quaid. “Has become a dear friend. He has a fascination with music. He grew up in the church. His mom is 91 and a huge part of his life still. I know faith has always played a huge part in who he is. Somehow this movie resonated with him. His dad was very attentive. I found that I had to leave some of the shoots because it was just hitting too close to home,” he remembers of their time filming.
“I walked into the house the location scout found and I kind of freaked out. I don’t know how they did it but the location they found was so much the same. Same kind of recliner. Same paneling on the wall. The likeness got to me. Dennis knocked it out of the park,” Bart says. “He said, ‘I’m about to be your dad for a lot of people from here on out so I want to get this right.’ “He’d find me on set and ask if his portrayal was ok. I’d say, ‘My stomach hurts so you must be nailing it.’”
The movie has resonated with audiences much in the same way the song has over the years. “I Can Only Imagine” has shattered box office projections doing over $80 million in just seven weeks and is the highest Roadside Attractions (Lionsgate) film EVER, grossing more than the last five academy award best picture winners. The effect it has had on Bart and those around him has been profound.
Bart and Shannon’s kids haven’t really asked a ton of questions about the movie, but he knows they get it. They show it in the way they interact with their dad. “When I’d come home, my girls would love on me. My daughter Sophie (10 years-old) would embrace me, lay all over me, and Shannon would say, ‘She’s hurting for you,’” he says with a sense of endearment. “She’ll rub my earlobe. It was like times-ten in her caring for me. Then Shannon would say, ‘Yeah, she saw the movie.’” Our seven-year old had questions. Our 16-year-old son is cooler and doesn’t say much but his friends have confided and he’s been able to minister to them.”
Now living and raising their family in Franklin, Bart and his wife Shannon have seen life come full circle. Life is sweet. Life is good. “We’ve lived here going on 5 years. Where else can you live in a real-life Norman Rockwell painting? Life is gentler in Franklin than his upbringing in Texas. “We currently have a love affair with Mojo’s Tacos in the Factory,” he says with a laugh. “From little league to our church home, we love everything about Franklin.”
Now that Bart can see life from a different perspective, what might his father think if he were still here? “He would laugh and think we’re making a big deal about it. The movie “The Right Stuff” featured Dennis Quaid and was his favorite. I think if he were still here and aware of the journey, it would be hard for him to watch and revisit but he’d be proud of how it ended up.”
“I Can Only Imagine” will be released on DVD on June 12th.
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Shari Lacy has happily called Franklin home for over 10 years. Owner of Moonstring Arts, she is a sought-after painter in galleries and shops locally and regionally. She has also owned GoodStuff PR Co. since 2006 and has been a freelance writer for years, having written articles for Reader’s Digest, Southern Exposure, Nashville Parent Magazine, Razor Magazine and more. She’s managed campaigns for numerous music artists through the years.