Music Within

Director: Steven Sawalich

Like most children, Richard Pimentel’s earliest dream was to become a superhero. Little did he realize that this goal would manifest itself in a rather unusual way when, as an adult, Richard discovered the superpower of being able to read conversations from one hundred feet away. Although it wasn’t a power that he’d stumbled on accidentally like the ones which defined Spiderman or The Incredible Hulk, similar to those heroes, it was one that came with a price, however in the eyes of a society that likes to turn a blind eye to the disabled (no pun intended), the price he paid was far more difficult than scaling walls or turning green. For Richard Pimentel, the price for his superpower was his hearing.

After a tragedy ridden childhood, Pimentel (Ron Livingston) found his calling as one of the most naturally gifted members of his high school debate team in the 1960’s. With a gift for memorization and a theatrical stage presence, Pimentel’s goal to receive a college scholarship was dashed when Professor Ben Padrow (Hector Elizondo) informed him that, although talented, he was insincere and needed to go out, experience life and earn a unique point of view. Still reeling from the news, impulsively, Pimentel enlists in the service only to find himself stationed in Vietnam where after an incoming explosion, he manages to escape with his life but with his hearing forever damaged. Now plagued with the high pitched ringing of unceasing tinnitus, Pimentel learns that he’s lost half of his hearing in the upper register. It’s due to this disability and the lack of preparedness by the powers that be that tell Pimentel that they can’t authorize his hard earned GI funds to send a deaf student to college and paint a bleak picture for the veteran of a friendless future and a warning that if he miraculously graduates, they wouldn't be able to place him in a job.

Doom ridden predictions be damned, Pimentel enrolls in college and on his path to graduation, he befriends another outsider in the form of Art (Michael Sheen), a witty man with a genius level I.Q. who, due to a cruel twist fate, is wheelchair bound and afflicted with cerebral palsy. The two embark on both a fast friendship as well as a quest to participate in the life that 1970’s American society seems all too ready to exclude them from which is evidenced in a heartbreaking scene as they’re kicked out of a pancake restaurant for breaking what Pimentel calls the “ugly law” a.k.a. the intolerance of able-bodied citizens to share public space with those who are "deformed or diseased." Later, Pimentel’s quest turns much more political, ambitious and proactive as, on behalf of not only himself, Art and fellow disabled Vietnam vets (suffering from both physical and mental impairments), he gets a job in a government agency cold calling businesses from the local Portland phone book in order to help other disabled citizens find jobs. Word reaches the governor who quickly asks Pimentel to create a program that will pave the way for employers to train and hire disabled persons and soon, Pimentel’s landmark professional guide makes him one of the most actively sought authorities on the matter and also helps lead to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.

While legendary film critic Roger Ebert faulted the film’s assertion that just one man was responsible for the ADA with his worthy and correct articulation that Music Within’s “hero stands for countless others," the film is first and foremost a biopic of one man’s struggles and successes so it’s on that level which made it a success for this reviewer. In addition to offering viewers yet another depiction of the tremendous range of actor Michael Sheen (star of Blood Diamond who also portrayed Tony Blair in The Queen and The Deal), it will be especially surprising to fans of Livingston’s Office Space and Sex and the City to see the typically comedic actor in a new light.

Winner of the Audience Award at the 2007 AFI Dallas International Film Festival, director Steven Sawalich’s moving film does admittedly suffer from a predictable script filled with action that is “accompanied by some very deliberately programmed and too obvious period music,” (John Anderson, Variety). Yet, perhaps in the wake of increasing numbers of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and mental disabilities, despite the film’s contrivances, it’s the type of quintessential underdog movie that inspires audiences rather than divides them and given the timeliness of the content, it’s hard to find fault with that.