Bart Millard and his band MercyMe recorded “I Can Only Imagine” in 1999 for their album “The Worship Project,” and again for their 2001 album, “Almost There.” The singer and composer himself could hardly imagine how deeply his heartfelt words would make themselves at home in millions of other hearts. The powerful, realistic, and hopeful imagery of heaven, and of a Father God being seen face-to-face after a lifetime inspired countless souls with hope, and greater purpose to live on earth with clarity.

“I Can Only Imagine” did more than keeping church congregations in rapt emotion.

The song had a reign on Christian, Adult Contemporary, Pop, and Country charts that lasted into 2010. More than a crossover sensation, the song remains the only Christian single to reach 2 million digital downloads. Bart Millard and his bandmates have been recognized by American Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards for Favorite Contemporary Inspirational Artists and Top Christian Album more than once.

It was the insistence of fans whose calls to mainstream radio stations to hear the captivating “I Can Only Imagine” that finally swayed programmers to put the ballad into regular rotation. Bart Millard has openly declared his feelings that some stations played the song in order to prove that a Christian song could not survive in any mainstream radio landscape, but “I Can Only Imagine” not only made the leap, it has lasted for almost two decades, and has never been dropped from any playlist.

For all the hope and promise of his ballad, Bart Millard endured his youthful life under the physical, emotional, and mental abuse of a father who couldn't conceive of how to love his son. Beyond the courage to survive and forgive through his ordeal, Bart Millard displays even more boldness in bringing “I Can Only Imagine” to the screen, starring Dennis Quaid as his father, and J Michael Finley as himself, along with Priscilla Shirer, Cloris Leachman, and Trace Adkins in an all-star cast.

The movie will be in wide release on March 16.

Maybe the only one

Dennis Quaid is perhaps the only prominent person on the planet who says he was not familiar with “I Can Only Imagine” before being offered the part, as he explained on “Today” on March 2. The actor has over 100 film credits, including iconic roles in “The Right Stuff” and “The Big Easy.” Bart Millard’s story “hit me in a place where I don't have words,” Quaid said.

It didn't take long for the lyrics and the meaning to move Dennis Quaid in exactly the right ways to convey the true-life character and the story.

Quaid understands now how the song has such power and affirms that “each person makes it about their own experience.” The best songs and the most remembered films come from truth, and it only took 10 minutes for Bart Millard to write the words telling his story in verse.

All about redemption

“It's not a Hollywood redemption story,” confirmed Dennis Quaid, detailing that the abuse between Bart and his father “went well into his teens.” It's never too late to take hold of faith, and the redemption wrought through faith finally brought healing to the father-son union.

Another catalyst in the life of Bart Millard was Mrs. Fincher, portrayed by Priscilla Shirer, who steers the young teen to music, allowing his gift to heal within and bring healing song to others. She relates her role as being a “Moses” to Millard, who could see his gift and potential when he could not. In addition to her growing acting credits, Priscilla Shier leads Going Beyond ministries.

Dennis Quaid probably divulged more of the story then he should have for such a short morning visit, but leave it to say that life, love, and death ultimately draw Bart and his father together. Bart Millard remembers being mad at God in moments because his father would say he would rather be in heaven with God then here on earth. Through the forgiving evolution of their relationship, the son wrote “I Can Only Imagine” as an offering of love and understanding to an awesome God and a dad he embraced.