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‘Music’ misses out on dramatic notes

Times Staff Writer

Finding one’s bliss through extreme adversity is the primary theme of “Music Within,” an episodically rendered biopic of activist Richard Pimentel, who survived a rocky childhood, Vietnam and hearing loss to become a champion for the rights of the disabled. Pimentel’s story of perseverance is a worthy and inspiring one, but on-screen it never comes together as a fully actualized dramatic narrative, despite the presence of strong performances by Ron Livingston, Michael Sheen, Melissa George and Yul Vazquez.

First-time feature director Steven Sawalich and screenwriters Bret McKinney, Mark Andrew Olsen and Kelly Kennemer make the common error of attempting to cover every seemingly significant moment in the man’s life rather than focusing on the greatest conflicts. The result is that they never truly find the innate drama in Pimentel’s story, instead simply recounting four or five decades’ worth of events that shaped the man.

The film begins two years before Pimentel’s birth with a series of miscarriages that precede his own unlikely entrance into the lives of his schizophrenic mother (Rebecca De Mornay) and unlucky father. The young Pimentel is shuttled among relatives and even an orphanage but early on finds a calling in public speaking, which he both enjoys and is good at.

Livingston has to be one of the most likable actors this side of Tom Hanks and carries the film admirably even when it drifts into sentimentality and predictability. The ever-ready Sheen (whose was a dead-on Tony Blair in “The Queen”) toils within the confines of a wheelchair and contorts himself in a manner reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot,” bringing a vibrancy and wit to the role.

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Coming of age in the late ‘60s, Pimentel (Livingston) attempts to win a speech scholarship to Portland State, but his dreams are dealt a blow when the head of the department, Dr. Ben Padrow (Hector Elizondo), rejects him on the grounds that he lacks life experience. An insulted Pimentel impulsively joins the Army and is shipped to Southeast Asia, where he gets life experience in a hurry.

Returning to college with a disability of his own, he falls in with Mike (Vazquez), a rage-filled fellow vet missing a leg; Art (Sheen), a wisecracking genius with cerebral palsy; and Christine (George). His aim has always been to help people, and he soon finds himself finding jobs for the disabled.

The film agreeably motors through the 1970s, abetted by changes in hairstyle and a fairly typical soundtrack of period oldies. Although he is saddled with a ton of voice-over, Livingston invests Pimentel with a sardonic attitude and embraces the character’s indignation at the discrimination faced by him and his friends.

Things really slow down, however, in the film’s second half when Pimentel’s dedication to his work, which includes becoming a leading speaker on training employers and government agencies in the hiring of disabled workers and an advocate for getting the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, takes a toll on his relationship with Christine. So much time is spent on obligatory scenes involving answering machines and chance encounters on the street that his work on the ADA seems to get short shrift.

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kevin.crust@latimes.com

“Music Within.” MPAA rating: R for language including sexual references, and some drug content. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At the Mann Chinese 6, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-8111; and the AMC Century 15, Century City Shopping Center, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 289-4AMC.


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