Do you want to see a heartwarming movie or one with dark humor? If you don't want to choose, Judge Gordon Sullivan has the movie for you.
Experience a movie that will make you believe anyone can change the world.
The "disadvantage film" has long been a staple of Hollywood. Sometimes it's economic disadvantage (Stand by Me or Dangerous Minds), while other times it's a physical or mental handicap (Mr. Holland's Opus or Forrest Gump). Often these films are based on true stories, and Music Within is no exception, telling the story of Richard Pimentel—one of the architects for the Americans with Disabilites Act. It's not a bad movie, but it doesn't quite enter the pantheon of great films about the disadvantaged.
Facts of the Case
Naturally gifted but economically challenged speaker Richard (Ron Livingston, Office Space) attempts to overcome his past by going to college on a speech and debate scholarship. During his audition, he's told by his hero, College Bowl founder Ben Padrow (Hector Elizondo, Pretty Woman), that he needs to have a life before he can truly be good at speaking. Richard takes his advice to heart and ships out to Vietnam, hoping to trade service for college money. Instead, he loses the upper register of his hearing due to an incoming explosive. As he struggles with his disability he discovers how cruel the world can be to people who aren't normal. He decides to do something about it, first by getting jobs for veterans and then by writing the manual on disability hiring. Along the way he befriends a genius with cerebral palsy (Michael Sheen,Blood Diamond) and falls in love with a young woman (Melissa George, 30 Days of Night).
Music Within is based on a real man, Richard Pimentel, and his story is fascinating. Sadly, the film doesn't quite know what to do with it. It starts out as a dry, black comedy, with a voiceover that reminded me of Forrest Gump. Richard grew up with a mentally ill mother who would celebrate the birthdays of her miscarried babies by buying presents and overdosing on sleeping pills. This information is delivered by Ron Livingston in a deadpan voice, almost ironically. Then we learn that Richard is a gifted speaker, and the film becomes a coming-of-age story, as Richard struggles to utilize his gift and overcome his economic disadvantage. Then, it's off to Vietnam for a short "horrors of war" segment, overlaid with more of Livingston's dry narration. When he's injured, the film falls into "living with disability" mode, with some "protest" on the side. Richard then befriends Art, a genius with cerebral palsy, and the film becomes a buddy movie. Richard also meets Christine, and suddenly it's a love story. He finds his true purpose helping the disabled get hired, and it's a social justice film. Finally, as he neglects his friends to travel the world training people on disability hiring, it becomes the typical movie about what happens to good people when they get power.
There's a lot going on in Music Within, like the filmmakers couldn't decide what they wanted their film to be when it grew up. Some of it works, especially the middle which focuses on the trio of Richard, Art, and Christine. There's some good dialogue, some well-earned emotional payoff, and a sense of purpose. The early part of the film seems like it was imported from another movie as Livingston narrates the death of his father and the insanity of his mother. I felt like the film was trying to hard to make light of the situation. The final third is somewhat aimless as it documents Richard's breakdown and eventual triumph in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act. It feels like every other "fall from power" film. The dialogue also grows more aimless. Livingston actually says, in voiceover, "Somewhere along the way I realized my heart wasn't driving me. My anger was." Lines like that just feel totally out of place.
Despite the spotty story and script, the film is anchored by excellent performances. I feel like I'm the only person in the world who didn't like Office Space, and I've never been interested in Ron Livingston as an actor because he reminds of a lesser Tim Robbins. He did a lot to change my opinion in Music Within. I still felt like his standard mode of acting was often a blank expression, but he shows a surprising range throughout the film. He even does a decent job with some of the more lackluster lines. Melissa George does an equally competent job showing the growth of her character through the story. However, the standout performance in Music Within is given by Michael Sheen as Art. The obvious difficulty of his physical performance impresses initially, with his stuttering and drooling, but as the story unfolds it becomes obvious that Sheen has seen past the physical problems and created a character that isn't defined by cerebral palsy. Instead, he's created a conflicted, bitter genius who just happens to have CP. I find Music Within hard to recommend, but it's worth watching just for his performance. The film is also populated with recognizable faces (like Clint Howard, Rebecca De Mornay, Hector Elizondo, and Yul Vazquez), and they do a fine job bringing authenticity to the smaller roles.
MGM sent a screener copy of the film for review, so the video was signficantly compromised by compression artifacts. I can see how this film could look very good on DVD, but since this isn't the final product, it's hard to comment. The audio, however, doesn't seem to suffer from the same difficulties as the video. The film didn't give an impression of a large budget, but they must have spent a bundle on the film's soundtrack, which features a number of songs from the various eras the film depicts. These songs are reproduced effectively, along with the film's dialogue.
For a film that didn't see much theatrical distribution, the film has decent supplements. There's an EPK-like documentary featuring the cast, crew, and Mr Pimentel himself. It's pure fluff, but worth a look since it's the only time you'll hear from some of the participants. There are some deleted scenes that add some details to the story, but nothing essential. There's also video of a speech by Richard Pimentel. I wasn't terribly impressed by his speaking skills, but perhaps I'm biased by years of admiring Jello Biafra. That aside, it's an interesting supplement, one fans are likely to appreciate. The main extra is a commentary by the director, writer, and producer. They're obviously comfortable with each other, and they relate production stories and technical details. If you're a fan of the film, this is the place to go to learn more about the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film has its heartwarming moments, and its little moments of social commentary. However, I wonder about the potential audience for the film. The R rating is likely to scare off the education crowd, and some of the dark humor might scare off the more sensitive. But that said, if you're looking for dark and/or adult humor, there isn't enough of it to justify sitting through the more heartwarming moments (unless you like that, too).
It's tough to feel totally ambivalent about a film that deals with disability, but that's how I feel about Music Within. It uses a number of excellent actors in service of a been-there, done-that script which only occasionally hits the emotional heights its aiming for. A rental is recommended if you're a fan of any of the actors in the film.
The film is found guilty of turning a fascinating story aimless. The actors, however, are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director/Producer Steven Sawalich, Writer Kelly Kennemer, and Producer Brett Donowho
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