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Music Within

Unpretentious Biopic Scores (Well Mostly)

You may not be familiar with Richard Pimentel, but if Music Within is to be believed (itís ďbased on a true storyĒ), Pimentel was instrumental in getting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 passed. A gifted public speaker, Vietnam War veteran, and tireless advocate for social and legal change involving the disabled, Pimentel overcame a series of hardships, beginning, unsurprisingly enough, with a dysfunctional upbringing and multiple setbacks, including the loss of his hearing in Vietnam that left him disabled.

The only son of a Chinese shopkeeper (Clint Lung) and a mentally ill mother (Rebecca De Mornay), Pimentel is shuttled between his parents for the first seven years of his life. After the death of his father in an accident, Pimentel was left in his motherís care. As a teenager, Pimentel (Ron Livingston) dreams of joining Portland Stateís debate team under the tutelage of a professor heís long admired, Ben Padrow (Hector Elizondo). Rejected by Padrow due to his lack of life experience and unable to pay for college without a scholarship, Pimentel impulsively signs up for an all-expenses tour of Vietnam as an infantryman. In Vietnam, Pimentel loses most of his hearing in a mortar attack. Doctors diagnose his hearing loss as tinnitus, a permanent ringing in his ears (he can barely make out vowels, but not consonants).

Back in the United States, Pimentel is at first rejected by a dismissive college admissions officer, but eventually gets in to Portland State University. Older than the other students, Pimentel struggles to keep up with his studies by learning to read lips. In the cafeteria, Pimentel notices another student, Art Honeyman (Michael Sheen), struggling to open a can of soda. Wheelchair bound due to cerebral palsy, Artís difficulty in expressing his thoughts hides a keen intelligence and a penchant for profanity-laced tirades.

Pimentel also meets Christine (Melissa George), an attractive student who, after some reluctance, reciprocates Pimentelís romantic inclinations, despite her stated preference for an open relationship. Stung by a negative experience in a pancake house, Pimentel decides to become an advocate, first for disabled vets who canít find work and, eventually, for the state and federal governments, developing and helping to implement training programs for companies employing the disabled, but over time, his personal life begins to suffer.

As directed by Steven Sawalich and scripted by Bret McKinney and Mark Andrew Olsen, Music Within follows all the emotional and dramatic beats associated with the American biopic. Biopics either try to cover all the key events from a subjectís life story or a key event or series of events that molded and define their character. Both types of biopics have their narrative flaws, either lacking a compelling hook and thus feeling episodic or overlaying the too neat three-act structure on a subject with messy, unruly life experiences. Music Within goes for the former, highlighting key events from Pimentelís life, ending soon after the passage of the ADA. Itís, as expected, a journey of lows and highs, setbacks and triumphs, but ending, of course, on one of the highs after a temporary downturn that feels underwritten.

Music Within may be predictable, but at least itís buoyed by the balance of comedy and drama in McKinney and Olsenís script (minus the aforementioned underwritten personal crisis), spot-on performances by a talented cast led by the underused Ron Livingston (Band of Brothers, Office Space) and the difficult-to-watch Michael Sheen (The Queen) as the wheelchair-bound Art. Sheen gives a note-perfect performance thatís imbued with the righteous rage and wounded vulnerability of someone forced to live with a permanent disability that robs him of almost everything except his intelligence and wit.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


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