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The beat goes off – ‘Sound of Metal’

December 7, 2020
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What happens to us when circumstances leave us unable to do the thing that we believe defines us? How can we recover from such a loss – particularly when that loss seemingly destroys the foundation on which the rest of our identity is built?

That question serves as the central concept in “Sound of Metal,” a new film currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Written and directed by Darius Marder, it’s the story of a heavy metal drummer who must deal with an unexpected and rapid deterioration of his hearing, a devastating blow that pushes the former addict toward a potential relapse.

It’s a powerful exploration of what it means to lose what defines us, as well as what we might do to regain that definition and ultimately achieve a redefinition. It also looks at what it means to not only need help, but to be willing to accept that help. Anchored by a transcendent lead performance and an immersive and innovative sound design, “Sound of Metal” hits hard.

Ruben (Riz Ahmed, “Venom”) is the drummer for the rock duo Blackgammon alongside lead singer/guitarist/girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, “Pixie”). The pair are currently in the midst of their first serious tour, crisscrossing the country in their RV and playing club shows. In the early going, things are proceeding well – the shows are well-attended and the merch and CD sales are robust. Plus, the time they’re spending together is only enhancing their relationship, giving them constant opportunities to enjoy one another.

And then it all changes.

At first, it’s barely noticeable. A ringing or a buzzing sound in Ruben’s ears. But very quickly, it becomes impossible to ignore, with his hearing cutting out almost completely; it’s as though he’s underwater, barely able to discern sounds from one another. He tries to play through it, but as you might imagine, a lack of hearing proves problematic for a musician.

He seeks out medical assistance, only to be told that his condition is degenerative and extremely fast-moving; his advice is for Ruben to avoid loud sounds – advice Ruben ignores when he continues to play. When he finally confesses to Lou, her immediate concern is for his health – physically, yes, but also emotionally. Ruben is a heroin addict; four years clean, but the temptation always remains. And with this tragic turn, Lou is concerned that Ruben might succumb. She reaches out to his sponsor for help.

Ruben winds up getting a bed at an addiction treatment facility aimed specifically at the deaf. He meets Joe (Paul Raci, TV’s “Baskets”), an alcoholic who lost his hearing in an explosion when he was serving in Vietnam. Despite initial resistance, Ruben slowly starts adjusting to his new home, even as he secretively continues investigating surgical options to treat his hearing loss. But his inability to come to terms with his situation leads to even more obstacles – obstacles both large and small. Ultimately, his future depends not on whether he regains the ability to hear, but rather whether he can learn to listen.

“Sound of Metal” is a thoughtful portrait of what it means to be forced to redefine yourself, capturing the pain that comes with the realization that your life as you knew it has changed and may never return to what it once was. It’s a story of anger and pain, one where even individual moments of triumph are undercut by bubbling rage at the unfairness of it all. As a character study, it is undeniably compelling.

But what pushes this film toward greatness is the incredible amount of thought devoted to the sound design. Simply put, what Marder and his sound team have created is amazing. Significant portions of the film are spent with the audience hearing through Ruben’s ears, from the early ringing to the progressive quieting to the nigh-complete silence. It’s a raw and remarkably effective way to bring forward the impact of the change, a real-time journey through his deteriorating hearing. That varied sound quality lends an added depth to an already-engaging story. It’s relatively rare that sound design is a star of the show, but that is in inarguably the case here.

That fungibility of sound only serves to accentuate the impact of the visual aesthetic. The isolating nature of what we hear contrasts with an assortment of powerful visual moments. Just one example: we watch the devolution of Ruben behind the drum kit through a collection of identically-framed scenes, from fully comfortable rock star to a confused and scared guy who can’t keep a beat.

“Sound of Metal” is a movie that only works if it has an absolute supernova of a central performance. That is the level of work that we get from Riz Ahmed, who takes a simply stunning turn as Ruben. From the rock star cool to the tough guy pretensions to the fear and vulnerability shining through the cracks in the veneer, he is incredible. His energy is raw and real, his pain marked by a wry nihilism. Looks to be a pretty good drummer too. We get some great supporting turns as well. Cooke is great in relatively limited action, while Raci creates an indelible character; really, the ensemble as a while is quite strong. Still, this movie is all about what we get from Ahmed – and we get a LOT.

“Sound of Metal” isn’t a feel-good film by any stretch; it is at times incredibly bleak and can be a tough watch. However, between the compelling story, the outstanding lead performance and the unforgettably innovative sound work, it is certainly touched by greatness.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 07 December 2020 11:53

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