The trouble with “Music Within” starts at the opening narration. The biopic’s subject, Richard Pimentel (played by Ron Livingston), tells us, “I was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. I’ve been pissed off ever since.” That’s a great way to introduce a fiery, angry character — except that nothing we see over the next 90 minutes suggests that Richard is anything like that. Apart from some stubbornness and tenacity, he’s actually pretty easy-going.
That’s emblematic of the film. If Richard Pimentel, a crusader for the rights of disabled people, is an interesting person in real life, you wouldn’t know it from watching “Music Within,” which paints him as average and reduces his experiences to shallow, predictable biopic vignettes. You can almost get away with that kind of superficial treatment in a movie about someone famous, because the question of “Why did you make a movie about this person?” has already been answered. But when the subject is not well-known, and the film about his life is unremarkable, the whole thing starts to feel like an exercise in futility.
Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Steven Sawalich and written by a trio of newcomers, the movie begins with Richard’s troubled childhood in Portland, Ore. (where the movie was filmed), the son of an insane mother and a dead Chinese father. He has a flair for public speaking and seeks a college scholarship on that basis; gets turned down; joins the Army; goes to Vietnam; has a bomb blow up next to him; comes home mostly deaf. He has severe tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ears that effectively drowns out most other sounds. (The film’s sound design very nicely shows us what Richard hears in a few scenes.)
Hearing aids eventually help him, but in the meantime he befriends Art (Michael Sheen), an obscene genius crippled by cerebral palsy whose voice, for some reason, is the only one Richard can understand most of the time. Richard becomes an inseparable pal to Art, as well as an impassioned campaigner for his fellow veterans, helping them find jobs and take advantage of their rights. Soon enough he’s on the governor’s staff, writing guides for businesses to help them deal with — and not discriminate against — disabled employees. He also has a girlfriend somewhere in here, Christine (Melissa George), whom he inevitably neglects when his devotion to the cause becomes so great that he ignores everything else.
Ron Livingston’s performance is likable, as expected, and Michael Sheen expertly walks the line between impersonation and caricature in his performance as the severely disabled Art. But what does it all add up to? As sincere as Sawalich’s intentions are, and as important as Richard Pimentel’s work on behalf of the disabled has been, the film never convinces us that Richard’s life story is movie-worthy. It’s a nice, agreeable film, best enjoyed by those with a personal stake in the material, and best left alone by the rest of us.
C (1 hr., 36 min.; )