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When Richard Pimentel, a Vietnam veteran who became a key activist behind the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, gave an inspiring speech eight years ago, Steven Sawalich heard the first notes of his feature-length directorial debut.
“The speech was his life story, which he incorporated with issues about disabilities in the workplace,” Sawalich recalls. “He has this amazing ability to take you on this roller coaster of emotions where one minute everyone’s laughing and the next there’s silence, then everyone’s crying.”
An introduction that day led to the making of “Music Within,” which opens Friday via MGM — during Americans With Disabilities Employment Awareness Month — in select cities before going wide.
The story is based on Pimentel’s life and spans five decades, tracing his journey from childhood to Vietnam — where he loses his hearing — to finding his life’s work in helping to improve the lives of disabled people.
“Music Within” won several awards on the festival circuit, including the AFI Dallas Audience Award for best narrative feature, before it was picked up by MGM.
“It’s a story that inspired me, and it’s not necessarily all about the disability movement,” Sawalich says. “For me, it was more the buddy film about the relationships that Richard’s encountered in his life that helped propel him to his goal. He didn’t set out to change the world, he just kind of fell into that place. Richard’s lived his life by trying to find the humor in every bad situation, and that’s one thing I tried to mirror in the film. When you think it’s gong to go darker, you flip it.”
Ron Livingston was cast in the lead role. As the helmer explains, “It was about finding that person that everyone can relate to and want to go on this emotional journey with.”
Sawalich also produced “Music Within” with Pimentel’s involvement.
“During the script phase, Richard was very involved,” the director says. “Writers Bret McKinney and Mark Andrew Olsen sat down with Richard and polished out the first few drafts. We brought Kelly Kennemer in once we were close to shooting to give it the fine touches.”
Pimentel briefly visited the set during production. “Everyone was a little nervous because this was the guy the movie’s about,” Sawalich says. “But the great thing is when he came to the set, the crew got to meet him and understand why they were making this film.”
Sawalich studied and began his career in acting before transitioning behind the camera. He created his own production shingle, Articulus Entertainment, which produced “Music Within” with Quorum Entertainment.
“It was about finding the films I wanted to do and getting those made,” he says of Articulus.
The film also supported Sawalich’s humanitarian efforts, as the director has spent a good deal of time raising funds for the Starkey Hearing Foundation, a charitable organization founded by his stepfather, William Austin.
Meanwhile, Pimentel continues to speak on the disability movement — and now “Music Within” is part of the agenda. With sponsorship from American Airlines, Pimentel and Sawalich have been taking the film around the country for screenings at disabled veterans organizations.
Pimentel also has been taking a message to Iraq veterans. Says Sawalich: “It’s basically, ‘Don’t let what happened after Vietnam happen now.’ Richard’s been doing all he can to (spread that message), and we are doing all we can to get it out there.”
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