“Music Within,” the decidedly ‘70s-flavored story of Richard Pimentel, the motivational speaker and writer who helped pass the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, convincingly delivers the message that disabilities are everyone’s concern. Helmed by Steve Sawalich, this real-life dramedy is anchored by Michael Sheen’s captivating performance as the severely handicapped, profoundly acerbic Art Honeyman. Commercial response should be modest but passionate.
A bit soft around the edges — Ron Livingston as Pimentel is a sympathetic but puppyish leading man — the picture wastes no time making its point: Richard is more or less victimized at birth by what can be described as betrayal by the human body and mind: His mother (Rebecca De Mornay) has suffered seven miscarriages by the time he’s born, and the effect is to send her into a disturbed mental state that dictates the course of Richard’s childhood.
As a young man, Richard discovers a talent for public speaking, but when he auditions for “College Bowl” founder Dr. Ben Padrow (an imperious Hector Elizondo), he’s told in no uncertain terms that he needs to have a life before he can convince others of his point of view. Richard thinks he’s had a life. But he joins the Army, goes to Vietnam and, during a shelling of his platoon, loses his hearing.
Accompanied by some very deliberately programmed and too obvious period music — including the unwelcome bleatings of Three Dog Night, America and the Youngbloods — Richard returns to college, where he meets Art (Sheen), a wheelchair-bound, beret-wearing verbal bomb-thrower, who is wracked by cerebral palsy but harbors a caustic wit and a hilarious gift for obscenity. Ironically, Richard’s deafness allows to him understand Art, so a social movement of two is born, as they get kicked out of restaurants, endure the contemptuous glances of passersby and are generally ostracized by a public horrified or disgusted by Art’s writhing incoherence.
“Music Within” is less than subtle about the way people were treated before and after the Disabilities Act, and depending on one’s tolerance for overstatement, the film might tread a bit heavily on the moral outrage. But Sheen (best known for playing Tony Blair in “The Queen” and David Frost in “Frost/Nixon”) is remarkable — one of the film’s stratagems is that Art is made understandable through Richard’s eyes and damaged ears, but a garble otherwise. So Sheen is really required to give two technically difficult performances. He’s utterly convincing, and the humanity he brings to the part only helps drive home the film’s social issues.
Script by Brett McKinney, Mark Andrew Olsen and Kelly Kennemer is good, but just sort of cobbles together a romantic subplot, between Richard and beautiful free-love advocate Christine (Melissa George), who fail to find a meeting ground for their mutual affection. In a smaller but essential role, Yul Vazquez turns Mike Stoltz, one of Richard’s fellow vets, into an intemperate alcoholic firebrand. After Sheen, Vasquez is the best thing in the film.
Production values are adequate, but “Music Within” was always a film that was going to rely on heart rather than craft.