AFI FEST 2020: ‘Sound of Metal’ ☆☆☆☆

British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed stars in a movie about loss and discovery: “Sound of Metal.” As you can probably guess from the title, this is about heavy metal. Ahmed, with an artistic goatee and bleached blond hair with defiantly black roots, plays punk-metal drummer Ruben Stone, who lives in a classic retro motorhome with his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). Ruben begins to experience intermittent hearing loss. “Sound of Metal” is Ruben’s journey into the deaf world.

There was a time when mothers and fathers warned their kids that if they listened to loud music they’d lose their hearing. With generations of rock music, punk, heavy metal and rap fans growing up, the mothers and fathers may also have hearing loss. Hearing loss isn’t a minor problem.  In 2018, AARP listed a few musicians who were plagued by “audio difficulties.” 

  • Deaf: the late producer George Martin and Pete Townshend of The Who,
  • Hearing loss: Eric Clapton, Danny Elfman, Huey Lewis, Sting
  • Tinnitus: Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk, Anthony Kiedis, Moby, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Ozzy Osbourne, Neil Young, Barbra Streisand, Will.i.am

“Sound of Metal” is a reality that is playing out on different levels all over the nation. In the film, Ruben Stone is the kind of musician who plays one-night gigs and has no permanent address. The sound design for this movie gives us a clue to what Ruben is hearing. He’s walking around on dry land, but it suddenly sounds like he’s underwater. From a specialist, he learns he has only 28 percent left in his right and 24 percent in his left. The doctor tells him that means he’s not hearing 70-80 percent of the words being spoken. His advice? Eliminate all exposure to loud noises. Things are going to get worse.

For a normal person, hearing loss is a hard mountain to climb. For a musician, it would seem like a death sentence unless you know about the Los Angeles scene in the creative arts. More on that later. 

Having lived the hard rocking, long hours with low pay life, Ruben hasn’t been above taking drugs. He’s been clean from heroine for two years–the exact amount of time he’s been with his bandmate girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke).  Ruben checks into a sober house run by a man who is proficient in lip reading. For this language emersion experience, Ruben must give up his girl, his car keys and his cellphone.   

Director Darius Marder uses sound effects to take the audience inside Ruben’s experience; we hear what he’s hearing. You can think that perhaps your grandparents or parents might be experiencing these problems or perhaps prepare yourself. Doctors recommend musicians use specially designed ear plugs to provide a muffling effect that still allows you to hear a full range of tones. Otherwise, musicians are four times more likely to develop noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and 57 percent more likely to experience  tinnitus than the general public.  

During the Zoom panel, Ahmed noted that after doing a Hollywood blockbuster (Ahmed was in “Star Wars: Rogue One” as Bodhi Rook), he was eager to do an independent film because they’re “more intimate” and are “all about the people.” For him, the film was about “what it is like to lose something you love; what it is like to lose your idea of who you thought you were.”  With the movie’s inclusion of people with hearing disabilities, it was an experience of “stepping outside of your own experience” and “stepping outside of your comfort zone.” For some of the scenes, he wore a special hearing aid to simulate hearing loss.  

Ahmed’s Ruben has an intensity tempered by vulnerability that is matched by Cooke’s Lou. Their chemistry has a bittersweetness to it. Darius and Abraham Marder’s script is sensitive but also doesn’t wrap things up in a neat, happily-ever-after package.  “Sound of Metal” was awared the Golden Eye for Best Film in the International Feature Film Competition category at the 15th Zurich Film Festival

This is one of those rare movie that truly needs a sequel. Ruben Stone’s story ends with him mourning the world that he lost but I would love to see his  journey into a world that few people know. In Los Angeles, there’s a well-established theater group called Deaf West Theatre. If you watched NBC’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” you’ll have witnessed deaf actors dancing to music (“Fight Song”). Deaf West has done musicals like “Oliver!” and “Pippin.” The group took a production of “Big River” and “Spring Awakening” to Broadway and earned Tony nominations. There is music for deaf actors and feeling the beat can sometimes enhance a theatrical experience. 

“Sound of Metal” forces audiences to face an every day modern problem in a way that will perhaps make your own experiences–current or future–seem minor. By using actual deaf actors, the film also expands diversity beyond race and ethnicity into disability. 

“Sound of Metal” is scheduled for a theatrical release on November 20, 2020, and for streaming on Prime Video on December 4, 2020.

 

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