I could go into full geek-out mode when discussing the sound effects, sound editing and sound design for Sound of Metal, the incredibly innovative movie starring Riz Ahmed as a drummer who loses his hearing and the after-effects that envelops his character. But instead, I’d like to focus on how much I really enjoyed this Amazon Studios feature film (and really hope it receives some major award wins).
I’m not gonna lie: The first time I vaguely heard any mention of this movie, I wrongly assumed it was a documentary focusing on a famous musician. But as I read more entertainment articles praising the release, I just couldn’t ignore it any longer. Growing up, I played the drums. From middle school all the way to college, I was a percussionist. I played a variety of instruments for nine years. I knew all about keeping time and hearing loud noises. My all-black Pearl drum set may be collecting a bit of dust, but I still enjoy banging on it every once in a while. As an aside, I’ve also had an incessant, constant ringing in my ears for a long, long time. Whether tinnitus or not, I felt an immediate connection to Ahmed’s character when I finally watched the movie.
In Sound of Metal, Ruben is a hardcore punk musician. Distorted feedback drones long and loud during the performances of his band, Blackgammon. Paired with Olivia Cooke’s Lou, the duo makes a name for themselves with their stripped-down, intense concerts. And one night, Ruben’s life gets immediately turned upside down with an immediate loss of hearing. Having ignored the previous crystal-clear signs, he simply thought he could continue his life as usual. As a viewer, there’s a chance he could have somewhat protected his hearing by wearing earplugs, but that is never addressed. This is when a reality check soon sets in.
A quick visit to an audiologist instructs him to stray from loud noises (which isn’t followed). Ruben’s future path is dedicated to the second recommendation from the hearing doctor. Hearing implants are a possibility, but a very expensive one. Going deaf is a scary thing to many people, but it’s not the end of the world. It is for Ruben, as a musician, though.
In the meantime, the band’s nationwide tour gets cancelled and Lou fears that Ruben’s sobriety is slipping away. With a push toward healing, he’s led to a rural community that specializes in deaf recovering addicts, but Ruben has other thoughts. After learning American Sign Language and fitting in with the community, he sneaks away to get the super-expensive cochlear surgery. It takes a trip half-way around the world for him to realize that his hearing loss was never the problem, but it was the inner demons he was constantly fighting that he had silenced, if only temporarily.
As a tormented drug addict, Ruben’s in obvious pain. Riz’s performance is strong as he “learns to be deaf.” It’s nuanced; you both love and hate the character and the actor’s receiving some serious award noms because of it, but I tend to think that Paul Raci, appearing as the head counselor at the deaf drug camp, gives the stronger performance. Joe is not only a babysitter, but he’s a healer. Each person allowed into the camp demands a different approach toward a brighter future. And as the soul of the group, Joe does whatever it takes to help them improve. There’s also a great, but all-too-small role for Lauren Ridloff (better known for portraying Connie on The Walking Dead).
Supervising sound editor and designer Nicolas Becker deserves the most credit for his contributions to the film, including having extensively researched individuals who have experienced hearing loss. At different points, he deftly transforms actual sounds into muffled, muted tones. There’s a distorted aspect that becomes almost tinny, creating a sound that would clearly drive anybody mad if that’s the noise heard in their ears.
Ruben takes an extended route to finally discover that silence is golden and that being deaf is not something that needs to be fixed. Director Darius Marder does a terrific job in leading Riz and Raci throughout the story and these three filmmakers should receive all the credit that is due, but Becker’s work allows each of them to ring in the clarity of the script.
Amazon Studios may soon be looking at a handful of gold awards very soon for this film. Not only has the Golden Globe Awards taken notice, but today, the SAG Awards have also spoken loud and clear to nominate the movie in a variety of categories. Sound of Metal is a powerful film. I hope that it receives all the recognition possible for its message.