You don’t need to change people’s minds about disabilities. You need to change their minds about themselves.
— Dr. Padrow (Hector Elizondo)
The title Music Within is something of a misnomer. This if you consider the movie’s incessant marking of its “period” with every clichéd backing track you can think of, from Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” to the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” to Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.” With songs galore to tell you exactly what’s going on inside protagonist Richard Pimentel (Ron Livingston), you hardly need plot or dialogue.
Based on the biography of Pimentel, tireless advocate for disabled persons’ rights, the film suggests not only that he (or perhaps his “generation,” by extension) has a tune for every occasion, but also that his route to selflessness was paved by some really annoying selfishness. His first memories concern his mother (Rebecca De Mornay), destroyed by seven miscarriages and never able to love her sole surviving baby. Though Richard recalls working with his father (Clint Jung) in a grocery store, he has nothing much else to say about him: “I identify him as being Chinese,” notes the voiceover, “because his race is the most vibrant memory I have of him.” In other words, not vibrant at all, for that’s the first and last mention of his race or his existence (he’s killed when a crate of soy sauce falls on his head) and the film has nothing to say about the son’s apparently mixed race background.
Richard focuses instead on his own determination to escape his scary mother. “Every year she’d celebrate the birthday of each of the children she miscarried by buying them a birthday card and taking an overdose of sleeping pills,” he says flatly. “That happened seven times a year. I wouldn’t call her successful at suicide but she was punctual.” De Mornay appears collapsed over the dining room table as her young son (played by Ridge Canipe) comes home from school. Clearly, he needs to get out of this place.
But when Richard decides his calling is public speaking (Livingston doesn’t quite pass for a recent high school graduate looking for a college scholarship), his teacher, Mr. Padrow (Hector Elizondo) thinks he needs more life experience in order to provide substance for his apparent vast talent (we have to take his word on this last, as the speeches Richard makes early on sound terrible). “Fortunately,” reports Richard as he observes a recruiter through his VW bug windshield, “The government had this program where you could get invaluable life experience and see the world. They would guarantee your education in exchange for services rendered. It was called Vietnam.”
Actually, it was called the war in Vietnam, and the movie shows precious little of the actual place. Instead, it offers up the usual iconography: choppers, AKs, swampy settings, GIs in camouflage helmets advised by Dale Dye. Wouldn’t you know, as soon as Richard finally feels like a man — having completed a mission and stated a poker game with his anonymous buds, under “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” because James Brown really speaks to this crew — an incoming mortar attack leaves him with tinnitus.
Discharged and depressed (and learning to read lips), Richard also learns he’s unemployable. Or at least this is the considered opinion of a screw-faced desk jockey played by Clint Howard, whom Richard dresses down with unconvincing vehemence: “You don’t know me, ’cause if you did, you’d know I close I am to coming over that desk and shoving that clipboard up your fat pompous ass!” Emerging from his tirade and looking for trouble, Richard conveniently meets another angry vet, Mike Stoltz (Yul Vasquez), who invites him to endure yet another Vietnam vet movie cliché, an evening smoking dope and drinking beer, complaining about the Man.
Richard’s next step is slightly less conventional, in that he befriends Art (Michael Sheen). “The only person on the planet that I could hear,” he explains, “was a wickedly obscene genius with cerebral palsy and the only person that could understand him was a deaf vet. We were like a traveling freak show.” A visit to a roller rink provides Richard with requisite girlfriend, Christine (Melissa George), who’s sexy and free-loving. When Richard learns she has a live-in boyfriend (Peter Crone), with whom she shares an “open relationship,” he’s moved to some of that spectacular speaking you’ve heard tell about: “I think what we have is one too many sausages in the bun,” he assert, then, more forcefully, “I like to have fun too, but if your idea of fun is testicle tag team then no, wrong guy.” (And yes, the song inserted here is “Stuck in the Middle with You.”)
Mostly, Christine serves as décor — she wears period outfits, goes with Richard to a club where the singer is a terrible Grace Slick imitator, or maybe she’s supposed to be Grace Slick, tells him she loves his new sofa. She also plays occasional punctuation for Richard’s career advancements, as when he’s asked to travel in support of a newly conceived, federally funded program to instruct employers in dealing with the disabled, she’s tearful that he’s leaving for weeks at a time (and not mollified when he tells her she can travel with him sometimes).
While Richard’s life and career are sure inspirational — he was crucial to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act — Music Within never conveys his energy or brilliance. It does, however, provide a Greatest Hits soundtrack for it.