When was the last time you watched a morality play — much less one that deals with people battling incapacitating disabilities — that was also unabashedly, side-splittingly hilarious? If nothing comes to mind, perhaps that is reason alone to check out Music Within, the new independent film based on the true story of one man’s quest to improve the lives of millions of marginalized Americans.
Richard Pimentel (Ron Livingstone) is born into a wildly dysfunctional family. So it is rather surprising when he arrives at adulthood having not just survived, but actually thrived. He is blessed with the gift of gab and the ability to weave stories (and even scathing insults) in a way that is irresistible to anyone within earshot. When Richard tries our for a debate team college scholarship, his mentor Dr. Ben Padrow (Hector Elizondo) admits that he is the single most gifted student he’s ever seen but also rejects Richard on the grounds that he has nothing meaningful to say. “You must earn a point of view,” he tells the ambitious but untested young man.
Stung and surprised, Richard makes an impulsive decision to enlist in the Army and promptly finds himself in Vietnam. One fateful evening, a mortar round explodes dangerously close. While Richard survives the blast, his hearing does not. He is discharged and sent stateside with what little hearing he has left replaced with the maddening shrill of tinnitus.
Richard does not waste time feeling sorry for himself. Refusing to let his disability or the narrow-minded prejudices of others keep him down, he learns to read lips and successfully bluffs his way into several jobs. He falls in with a motley crew of colorful misfits, including Mike Stoltz (Yul Vazquez), a vet with an ocean of rage and nowhere to put it, Art Honneyman (Michael Sheen), a wheelchair bound victim of cerebral palsy who uses his rapier wit to deflect intolerance, and Christine (Melissa George) a college student who introduces Richard to the swinging world of free love.
Soon, Richard quits his job so he can help other disabled veterans find work. Word gets out and it isn’t long before he is handpicked by the national government to prepare a pilot program for assimilating the disabled into the workforce. That program goes on to become The Americans with Disabilities Act, a sea change that will forever alter the way in which this country treats its disabled citizens. Richard has found something meaningful to say.
Music Within is far from a perfect film. Usually, the script doesn’t live up to the production values, but here the production values are woefully outstripped by the relentlessly insightful and hilarious script. Music Within was obviously shot on a meager, shoestring budget, no matter how well it makes due with what it has. Still, while this is a small movie that spans a massive chunk of time — five decades — it does not do so in any sort of realistic fashion. Though the cars and fashions move with the ebb and flow of time, no real effort is given to age the actors. Furthermore, Richard surmounts his disability far too quickly for us to ever feel that it was ever much of a hindrance in the first place, and tangentially, we never buy that he is deaf, even partially. Whether this is the fault of the editing or the always-delightful Ron Livingstone remains impossible to tell.
Michael Sheen, who was last seen as the dapper Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Oscar-nominated The Queen, here vanishes into an performance as Richard’s cerebral palsy-afflicted best friend that is nothing short of astonishing and will probably be overlooked come awards season because of the diminutive nature of the film.
Music Within is made in the tradition of other great films like 1946’s The Best Years of our Lives, which wrestle with heroes returning from the fields of battle less whole than when they left. That this subject matter could be this uplifting and feel-good is almost irreconcilable and the credit must go to the screenwriters. They have constructed a film that illuminates the struggles and triumphs of those brave crusaders who blazed a trail for an entire country and did it will droll resolve.
It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “Most people go to their graves with their music still inside them.” By facing down his demons and digging into his own heart to find his “music within,” Richard Pimentel was able to help countless others find their song.
Like the disabled characters in the film, the low-budget Music Within may not entirely work on the outside, but at its core beats a very funny, very smart and very moving heart of gold.