Starring Dennis Quaid, Trace Adkins, J. Michael Finley and the late Cloris Leachman, I Can Only Imagine chronicled the turbulent early life of MercyMe frontman Millard, and the band’s rise to fame, propelled by the hit song “I Can Only Imagine,” which Millard wrote about his father’s death. Released in 2018, the film became a huge box office success and put the Erwins on the map.
The brothers were in the process of developing another film when the pandemic hit, and everything shut down -- prompting them to shift gears. “We had a meeting with our whole team [and asked] ‘What stories do we tell now?’" Andy Erwin remembers. "Somebody said, 'Nobody has ever done the comprehensive history of Christian music from the standpoint of the trailblazers in CCM [contemporary Christian music]. And for the first time in history, they are all off the road at the exact same time.' So we called up Smitty [Michael. W. Smith] and Amy [Grant] and asked if it was interesting. And they said, ‘Not only is it interesting, but we’d produce it with you.’”
Smith and Grant are among the film’s executive producers, though Grant humbly downplays her involvement. “I don’t want to take credit where credit’s not due -- I’m a hood ornament,” she tells Billboard with a smile. “I love their work. I think they tell a great story. They did not actually consult me on this story, but they let me be a part of it. I think they did a great job.”
Grant did her interview for the film last year shortly before having surgery to correct a genetic heart condition. “To keep her safe, we did her interview through the window of her house and interviewed her with a two-way intercom,” Andy Erwin says of trying to make sure Grant didn’t get Covid before her surgery. “She gave such a raw and transparent interview.”
“It did feel kind of surreal,” Grant says. “They were outside, and I was inside. They had to make sure the lighting was right. They had the camera lens right up against a windowpane. I had a microphone in there with me and they were talking through a speaker.”
In addition to being interviewed for the film, Smith was excited to take a more active role as executive producer. “I said, ‘I want to contribute something.’ So, there were some moments where we hit just a few roadblocks and I made a couple of calls going, ‘Hey I really think it would be a wise move for you to give an interview,’” Smith says. “They really welcomed my input especially when I saw the first cut and said, ‘I think it’s too long. It’s just my opinion so take it for what it’s worth.’ It was good teamwork. Those guys are so open, and they did a great job."
“The heaviest lifting was just condensing it down,” Andy Erwin says. “We started with our friends. We interviewed Bart from MercyMe and TobyMac and then he started assembling DC Talk again. We interviewed Kirk Franklin . . .We got to sit down with legends like Bill and Gloria Gaither and Stryper, and the next thing we knew we had over 100 interviews with artists. It’s like being the greedy kid at the buffet. We ended up with a plateful -- like, 'How do you eat this?'”
The Erwin brothers co-directed the film, and Jon wrote it. “If you are a fan of the music, this will be like the soundtrack to your life,” Jon Erwin says. “These people had these songs burning in their souls and there was no place to sing them. There was no place to sell them, and they invented an industry around the music that they wanted passionately for people to hear. That was inspiring to me. So, this movie is also a love letter to dreamers everywhere -- and to artists and entrepreneurs everywhere.”
Artists are already reacting positively to the film. “Whenever you pull back the curtain on anything, things can be exposed -- and because I know what’s behind this curtain, I’m happy for it to be pulled back,” TobyMac told Billboard at the premiere. “There is richness. There is heritage. There is truth. There is a lot of love. People sometimes seem like, ‘Aw, that’s all big commercial business' -- but there is so much heart and soul in Jesus music. I’ve done it my whole life, so anything you’ve poured your whole life into, and you believe in, you want it to be highlighted. You want to open people’s minds to it. You want to share it with the world.”
In addition to the film, there is also a companion book written by Marshall Terrill and published by K-LOVE Books. “There’s a lot of photography that hasn’t been seen before and that was just another way to explore this story,” Jon Erwin says. “It’s such a big story and we had to condense it into a movie. There’s so many other stories to tell and many of those you get in the companion book, so that was at least one way to dive a little deeper.” There are no plans to release a soundtrack.
Instead of looking for a television outlet or going straight to streaming, the Erwins opted for a theatrical release. “We love the partnership with Lionsgate, and we love the theatrical experience,” Jon Erwin says. “There’s just nothing like an immersive experience shared with your friends. I think the last few months have shown that it’s a safe experience, and it’s just one that I crave. This music is such an emotional experience. Why not experience it in the biggest way possible? We were so happy when Lionsgate agreed to a nationwide theatrical release for it. I love starting in theaters.”
The artists walking the red carpet at the premiere were also pleased that The Jesus Music will grace theaters. “You might not be able to get people into church, but you can get them into a movie,” Jason Crabb said at the premiere. “I pray that people get the message and the hope of Jesus Christ.”
The film explores everything from Stryper’s complicated history with the church to the late Billy Graham’s career-boosting support for pioneering Christian acts like DC Talk. Newsboys’ Duncan Phillips thinks audiences will learn a lot about the genre. “A lot of people don’t realize the history and the legacy of this music,” he says. “After COVID, people are looking for something a little deeper than the lives they’ve been living, so I think the best is yet to come for CCM -- and showing the history is a great place to start.”
Millard agrees. “As far as people that never darken the door of a church, they may not be aware of it, or just think of something that is stuck in the ’70s,” he says. “Growing up, it was everything to me. I was the nerd, a product of the system for sure. It’s crazy to think that it’s been around for so long and there’s a lot of people that are just unaware of it.”
St. James was looking forward to seeing the film at the premiere. “It’s going to be real special for me to see all these different periods of history all in one movie and the hope of Jesus coming through all of it,” she says.
Jon Erwin hopes audiences will leave the theater with a feeling of hope. “When we did the movie I Can Only Imagine, we asked Bart, ‘What is the essence of this song? Why would an independent artist/independent band write a song that goes multi-platinum?’" he recalls. "And he just said, ‘It’s a rush of hope' -- and that really summarizes what this music is. It’s hopeful music. It’s a rush of hope. It’s about being inspired and connected, and people need it. We need it now, certainly more now than ever.”
“It’s not just something we sing,” Winans shares, “but it’s something that we believe. We just pray that when people see it, that they’ll experience that power.”