This review was written for the theatrical release of "Music Within."
You need an Erin Brockovich to sock home points about toxic waste. So "Music Within" will hook the audience up with a supremely cool and witty real-life character, Richard Pimentel (well played by Ron Livingston), who then escorts you through his life as a disabled Vietnam veteran, motivational speaker, author and passionate activist for the disabled community. So what should be a tough, sentimental slog whisks by in a breezy, entertaining 94 minutes like a kind of illustrated stand-up comedy routine.
Of course, the challenge faced by MGM is to persuade an audience to risk seeing a movie about events leading up to the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act. The film opens today in 10 markets and will need strong critical support in tandem with MGM's marketing to create awareness. The film will more than likely make its mark in cable and DVD markets.
Pimentel literally has written the handbook on how to work with the disabled. He is a pioneer in the civil rights effort to integrate the disabled into normal American life, much of this because of his own personal magnetism.
Livingston and director Steven Sawalich keep the character in constant motion, his dialogue sprinkled with humor and his energy contagious. The film also is surrounded by a crew of ferociously individualistic characters. That starts with Pimentel's mom (Rebecca De Mornay), mentally unbalanced and unable to accept or love him. Only to hear him tell it, life with Mom is bitterly funny. Especially those bimonthly suicide attempts, each to celebrate the "birthday" of a different child she lost in miscarriages.
His mother's erratic behavior and father's death produce, against all odds, a deeply ambitious man who finds his true calling in public speaking. But a college speech professor (Hector Elizondo) curtly rejects him for a scholarship because he has no point of view.
Richard joins the military. A bomb blast during a tour of duty in Vietnam robs him of much of his hearing. Returning to the same Portland, Ore., campus, he falls in with his "traveling freak show": Mike Stoltz (Yul Vazquez), a fellow veteran filled with rage, and Art Honeyman (Michael Sheen, just terrific), a wheelchair-bound student afflicted with cerebral palsy and a wicked wit. The lover Richard chooses, Christine (Melissa George), is beautiful, blond and normal but believes in open relationships, so he is forced to share her with another man.
He quits a lucrative job to get disabled people jobs, which he and Mike prove supremely good at. When a restaurant refuses to serve Art a birthday breakfast, their arrest turns him into an activist.
The screenplay by Bret McKinney & Mark Andrew Olsen and Kelly Kennemer does a fine job of shoehorning the events of Pimentel's colorful life into a tight but jaunty structure. It also helps that the film can explore mental illness, war injuries, gross disabilities, suicide, lost love and parental rejection and never loose its optimistic nature. It's the opposite of Pollyanna-ism; this group goes in for naughty, mordant humor that deflects all the negativity and prejudice.
The Vietnam sequences, filmed in the Philippines, give evidence of a limited budget, but all other sequences shot in Oregon yield a rich sense of era and place along with a soundtrack of golden oldies.
Articulus Entertainment/Quorum Entertainment
Director: Steven Sawalich
Screenwriters: Bret McKinney & Mark Andrew Olsen, Kelly Kennemer
Producers: Brett Donowho, Steven Sawalich
Director of photography: Irek Hartowicz
Production designer: Craig Stearns
Music: James T. Sale
Co-producer: Ron Livingston
Costume designer: Alexis Scott
Editor: Timothy Alverson
Richard Pimentel: Ron Livingston
Christine: Melissa George
Art Honeyman: Michael Sheen
Mike Stoltz: Yul Vazquez
Richard's Mom: Rebecca De Mornay
Ben: Hector Elizondo
Bill: Leslie Nielsen
Running time -- 94 minutes
MPAA rating: R