Richard Pimentel knows what it is to be unwanted. That's the way life started with his mother (Rebecca De Mornay) whose multiple miscarriages led her into suicidal grief for each one's passing. So absorbed is she in her loss, she has little left to give to her only living son. (The narrative is crisp through the movie, as he observes that his mother was "...not successful at suicide, but she was punctual.") His father is a Chinese restauranteur, who provides some stability in the boy's life until he passes away from a work-related accident. Then, mom changes custody for him from her to relatives and back to her again.
Richard becomes eloquent in spite of it all. He develops his speech skills enough to win trophies, but not enough to win a scholarship from Portland (WA) University. Dr. Pedro gives him a try out, but his conviction doesn't match his delivery.
His solution is to join the Army where he volunteers and becomes an enlistee for the Vietnam War. One night while celebrating and reverie with his fellow soldiers, a shell pierces the night sky, but they aren't able to evacuate in time. The blast leaves Richard injured, especially with hearing loss. One of the masterstrokes of the movie is how they relate the muffled sounds of speech and the perpetual ringing in the ears he experiences and is expected to live with for the rest of his life.
Coming home, he has disability support, but he needs so much more. He comes across a counselor who gives no support or consolation about job opportunities, but his anger and determination keep him going. Like nearly everyone else, he'd like to relate to others and be a productive and working member of society.
The people he meets from there are essential. Fellow Vet Mike Stoltz (Yul Vázquez), suffering from an amputated leg, offers him a beer at 10:00 in the morning, but he proves to be a better companion than beer for breakfast. At a cafeteria, Richard meets a patron, Art Honeyman (Michael Sheen), who has cerebral palsy. Shooting from the hip with a few choice expletives, Art has a style and conviction Richard likes better than the professor did his own. Together they're inseparable. One day while roller skating (Art's in a roller chair) they inadvertently knock over Christine who is understandably flustered, but he finds his match with her steady live-in boyfriend who has the looks, but not the congeniality toward his handicapped friend.
Most of the movie shows Richard's struggle--within himself, against institutions, and winning Christine's affection. With friends and determination as his chief resources, he is able to lobby support for handicapped people in groundbreaking ways. Although based on a true story, I was surprised to find so many means one man, who used his eloquence and handicaps to provide those "...little differences you make in someone's life." Both personal and historical in impact, 'Music Within' should be music to every movie goer's ears.