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REVIEW | Noble Rot: Steven Sawalich’s “Music Within”

REVIEW | Noble Rot: Steven Sawalich's "Music Within"

Likable yet bland, Ron Livingston has been cursed with an earnest, puppy dog face that, while charming, makes him hard to take seriously as a dramatic actor, or even an intriguing comic one. He’s not untalented, just dull, and in that sense he’s perfectly cast as the protagonist of “Music Within.” This debut feature film by Steven Sawalich is an inspirational tale “based on a true story,” and obediently follows that disclaimer’s tried-and-true formula: some laughter, some tears, and a consistent distribution of valuable life lessons. In other words, it’s terribly earnest and mostly forgettable. “Music Within” isn’t wrongheaded in its portrayal of the life story of Richard Pimentel, a Vietnam vet who became a successful champion for disabled people’s rights, but neither does it look at its subject with much complexity. No movie can get by on good intentions alone, and “Music Within” fails to make itself an exception.

Written by the novice trio of Bret McKinney, Mark Andrew Olsen, and Kelly Kennemer, “Music Within” possesses a “Movie of the Week” quality that dooms it from start to finish. The opening sets up the physical and psychological baggage Pimentel must overcome: a shattered family (dad dies young, mom goes crazy), lack of money for college, a blow to his dream of attending Northwestern on a scholarship when the school’s public speaking coach (Hector Elizondo) unfairly rejects him.

Then it’s off to Vietnam–we know what era we’re in by the vintage store clothing, slightly unkempt hair, and the wall-to-wall soundtrack music, which, like that in “Forrest Gump,” somehow manages to use every song written between 1945 and the present day (a small sample of the chestnuts meant to signify the Sixties: “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Somebody to Love,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Get Together”). Pimentel contracts severe hearing loss during the war, and establishes contact with other veterans and people with disabilities when he returns to the States: Mike (Yul Vasquez), a disgruntled, one-legged vet, Art (Michael Sheen), a cerebral palsy sufferer with a foul mouth, and Christine (Melissa George, looking uncannily like Rose McGowan and acting with the same wooden prettiness), a practitioner of free love – or what passes for free love in this rather chaste film–who becomes his girlfriend.

Most importantly, Pimentel begins a program that finds work for people with disabilities, and eventually proves instrumental in writing the Americans with Disabilities Act. Unfortunately, Pimentel’s growing awareness about the discrimination faced by the disabled is imparted mostly via speechifying, and “Music Within”‘s humor seems like a desperate attempt to deflect criticism against its softness – “humanizing” a disabled character by merely making him vulgar only invites a condescension that must be the last thing such a message film would want to put over. The narrative’s only real complication arrives near the end when Pimentel’s world crumbles around him, but it’s just a stumbling block on the road to ultimate triumph. The final scene shows Pimentel in his current role as a motivational speaker, and that’s what “Music Within”‘s been all along: a feature-length inspirational lecture.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

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