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I Can Only Imagine: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Dennis Quaid, J. Michael Finley, Trace Adkins

J. Michael Finley
Jonesboro, Arkansas, USA
Bart Millard
Born: December 1, 1972
Birthplace: Greenville, Texas, USA
Brody Rose
Bart Millard (young)
Dennis Quaid
Born: April 9, 1954
Houston, Texas, USA
Arthur Millard
Born: November 26, 1942
Birthplace: Greenville, Texas, USA
Death: November 11, 1991, Greenville, Texas, USA (pancreatic cancer)
Bart Millard's father
Madeline Carroll
Born: March 18, 1996
Los Angeles, California, USA
Shannon Street
Born: November 1, 1974
Birthplace: Dallas, Texas, USA

Bart Millard's girlfriend and future wife (pictured in 1990)
Trace Adkins
Born: January 13, 1962
Springhill, Louisiana, USA
Scott Brickell

MercyMe's manager
Nicole DuPort
Born: May 17, 1980
Santa Rosa, California, USA
Amy Grant
Born: November 25, 1960
Birthplace: Augusta, Georgia, USA

Christian and pop singer
Tanya Clarke
Born: February 2, 1972
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Adele Millard

Bart's mom

Questioning the Story:

Did Bart Millard's mom walk out when he was 13 because of abuse?

No. The I Can Only Imagine true story reveals that Bart's parents divorced when he was just three years old. According to Bart, his mother always said, "I married a teddy bear but went home with a monster" (Billboard). Unlike what is seen in the movie, Bart lived with his mother up until the third grade. It was then that his mother chose to move away with her third husband. It was decided that it would be best for Bart and his older brother Stephen to stay with their father, Arthur (People). Bart's brother Stephen (pictured below) is absent from the movie.

Bart (right) with his older brother Stephen (left), who is not depicted in the movie.

Was Bart Millard's father abusive before his parents split up?

Yes. Arthur Millard had never laid a hand on Bart's mother, Adele, but she suffered verbal, psychological and emotional abuse. It all started before Bart was born when his father, Arthur, suffered a head injury when he was hit by a diesel truck while working as the guy who waves traffic through construction sites. He didn't break a bone in his body but ended up in a coma for about eight weeks.

"Everybody who knew my dad said that he was the biggest teddy bear," says Bart. "But when he woke up, he had the foulest mouth and the worst temper. It took 12 people to hold him down" -Catholic Digest

Is the I Can Only Imagine movie based on Bart Millard's memoir?

I Can Only Imagine: A Memoir offers a first-hand look at the true story that inspired the movie.
No. Bart Millard's memoir was published a month before the release of the I Can Only Imagine movie. It explores in detail the accurate version of Bart Millard's story, which inspired the movie's version.

Was Bart Millard's dad, Arthur, a former football star?

Yes. He was an All-American football star who played for Southern Methodist University, but he hurt his knee around his sophomore year, which restricted his playing time. "He got homesick, ended up going home, and married my mom," says Bart. He took a job with the Department of Transportation as a flag waver on construction sites. In addition to his head injury from being struck by a truck on the job, the family doctor always felt that getting hit hard playing football since he was five also contributed to the likely frontal lobe injury. -Catholic Digest

Did Bart's father, Arthur Millard, have substance abuse issues?

No. His father didn't drink or use drugs. It was his short temper and tendency to take out his frustrations on his son that was at the root of the abuse. "If he got embarrassed or cut off in traffic or whatever, he would take a swing at me," Bart recalls. "I was like his punching bag" (People). On occasion, he would beat Bart if the Dallas Cowboys lost. The beatings happened as often as three or four times per week, which left Bart in constant fear (The Tennessean).

Bart's dad Arthur in the early 1970s (left) and Dennis Quaid as Arthur Millard in the I Can Only Imagine movie. Source: Bart Millard Instagram

Did Bart Millard's dad really break a plate over his head?

Yes. "People ask, 'Did your dad really break a plate over your head?' Sadly, that actually happened," recalls Millard. "And I grabbed a bat and yelled, 'I'm too big to be treated like that! You're crazy!' I said that and left the house." Watching the scene being reenacted on set brought Millard to tears. -Catholic Digest

Were Bart and his wife Shannon high school sweethearts?

Yes. "My wife, [Shannon], was my first girlfriend in 8th grade. She's a huge part of my story," Millard wrote on Twitter in January 2017.

Bart and Shannon Millard are pictured at a high school dance in 1990 (left) and several months prior to the movie's 2018 release (right).

Did Bart's grandmother really name the band?

Yes. The I Can Only Imagine true story confirms that Bart's grandmother (Memaw) came up with the name for the band. When he told her he was going to be a singer, she replied, "Mercy me."

Does actor J. Michael Finley sing the songs in the movie?

The I Can Only Imagine Soundtrack features the songs J. Michael Finley sings in the movie.
Yes. J. Michael Finley sings in the movie, which is his big-screen debut. He had previously performed on Broadway, including as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. You can hear him sing the songs from the movie on the I Can Only Imagine Soundtrack. Be sure to listen to the song "O Lord, You're Beautiful".

Did Bart Millard's father really beat him so badly that he couldn't lay on his back?

Yes. In the film, Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley) reminds his father (Dennis Quaid) of this childhood incident as his father is trying to make amends. The true story behind I Can Only Imagine reveals that the reason for the beating was because Bart had forged his father's name on a notification that he had made the honor roll. Even though it was a good thing, he didn't want to risk giving his father the letter and sparking a reaction. The school recognized the forgery and called home to let his father know the good news. His father felt embarrassed and waited for Bart to get home.

As soon as Bart walked in, his father began whipping him for several minutes with a razor strap. It was so intense that Bart started to fear that his father was going to kill him. "He beat me all the way through the house," recalled Bart. "Everything on me hurt so badly I couldn't lay on my back." Bart cried in his dark room for hours, until his father burst in and turned on the light. "It's about time you stop crying!" His father froze as he looked at his son's back and saw the black and purplish bruises and the dark welts. It was the first time that Bart had ever heard his father cry.

Fearing he might do something worse to his son, Arthur sent Bart to live with his mother, Adele, and her new husband in San Antonio, Texas. Bart stayed in touch with his dad and quickly realized that he hated living with his mom. He returned to live with his father at the end of the sixth grade. -The Tennessean

When was Bart's father diagnosed with cancer?

Arthur Millard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 44, during Bart's freshman year in high school.

Did Bart's dad's cancer diagnosis help to bring them closer together?

Yes, but it was how much Bart's dad had changed after finding religion that allowed Bart to see him in a new light. "I got a front row seat to see this guy go from being a monster to falling desperately in love with Jesus," Bart says.

Bart Millard with his father Arthur during Bart's senior year of high school. It is the last photo of the two of them together before Arthur died of pancreatic cancer several months later. They are pictured again (inset).

Did Bart take care of his father during his father's battle with cancer?

Yes. Bart acted like a nurse to his father as he went through cancer treatments. After not being very close prior to that, Bart would administer his father's medicine at night and they'd talk for two or three hours until they fell asleep. -People

Bart's dad's religious awakening helped to guide the course of Bart's own life, just like in the movie.
Did Bart's father's religious awakening change the trajectory of Bart's own life?

Yes. "It's literally changed the trajectory of my life," Bart said while speaking of his father finding God. Seeing how much it changed his dad helped Bart to discover his own faith. It guided his life, his music, and the choices he's made since. "I guess I grew up thinking that if the Gospel could change that guy, it could change anybody. There was no denying it" (People). As emphasized in the movie, Millard says that his dad "went from a monster to the guy I wanted to be like when I grew up" (

In real life, Did Bart's mom and dad ever reconcile before his dad died?

Yes. Though it's not shown in the movie, Bart's mother and father reconciled before his father died. "She was there when he passed away," says Bart. -Catholic Digest

When did Bart Millard's father pass away in real life?

"My dad was diagnosed with cancer my freshman year of high school," says Bart. He passed away almost five years later on November 11, 1991, a few months after Bart's graduation. Bart was 19 at the time. "The movie made it look like it all happened in my junior and senior year of high school." -Catholic Digest

Did Bart Millard's dad really set it up so that Bart would get money each month to pursue his dream of being a singer?

Yes. Arthur set it up so that when he passed, his son would get $600 a month for 10 years so that he could chase his dreams. Bart received the final check the same week that "I Can Only Imagine" reached No. 1 on Christian radio charts. -The Tennessean

The real Bart Millard in the mid-2000s (left) and his onscreen counterpart J. Michael Finley (right).

How did Bart Millard come up with the idea to write the song "I Can Only Imagine"?

Like in the movie, the idea for the song came from a comment his grandmother made at his father's funeral. "She said, 'I can only imagine what your dad's seeing now,' and I became obsessed with that phrase," Bart recalled. He spent years constantly writing the phrase down on anything in front of him. "It was more O.C.D. than religious," he admits. When he began work on MercyMe's first album, his notebook was filled with the phrase. He saw it as a sign and started to incorporate it into a song. Having lived the song's backstory, he says it took him only ten minutes to write. Unlike the movie, he didn't write the song right after his father died. Almost seven years had passed before he finally wrote the song in 1998. -People

Did Amy Grant surprise Bart Millard by asking him to perform the song instead of her?

The film heightens the drama here a bit. Like in the movie, Bart did give Amy Grant the rights to record the "I Can Only Imagine" song. She knew that it would be a career maker and decided she wanted him to release it. However, she didn't tell Bart by having a sudden change of heart while on stage at a concert. She notified him prior to a scheduled performance at a showcase. She gave the song back to him and asked him if he would perform it with her at the event. -Contagious Encouragement

Amy Grant (left) was planning to record the "I Can Only Imagine" song before deciding that Bart (right) should be the one who sings it. Source: Bart Millard Instagram

When did MercyMe's song "I Can Only Imagine" become a hit?

Some people who see the movie might not have realized that Bart Millard's song "I Can Only Imagine" became a hit in 2001, 17 years prior to the movie's release. It went on to become the bestselling Christian single of all time.

Watch the Bart Millard Interview & the "I Can Only Imagine" Music Video

Expand on what you know about the true story behind the I Can Only Imagine movie by watching the videos below, including an interview with Bart Millard and the music video for the song.