Every year there are two Academy Awards for sound: one for mixing and the other for editing. And every year, hardly anyone pays attention. We all love good acting, good writing, and good music, but the overall sound of a movie is not something most people notice unless it’s done poorly.
Sound of Metal is an impressive exception. It’s a well-made, artsy drama about a drummer who’s losing his hearing, but it’s made truly noteworthy by the way the filmmakers use sound to show the viewer what the protagonist is going through. It debuted at a film festival last year, was released in theaters last month, and is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
From the basic outline of the plot, you might expect a moving tale about the power of music. The history of rock ’n’ roll, after all, is full of stories about musicians who heroically overcame physical problems to return to the stage. Rick Allen, the drummer for Def Leppard, lost an arm in a car accident but came back with the help of a special electric drum set. Klaus Meine, singer of the Scorpions, once lost his voice after a tour and was told to find a new line of work but has since managed to go on for decades longer. Dave Mustaine, singer and guitarist for Megadeth, severely injured his arm and only briefly disbanded the group. Most recently, AC/DC singer Brian Johnson lost his hearing but was able to release an album this year, at the age of 73, thanks to new technology.
But awesome tunes and inspirational montages are not what Sound of Metal has in store for us.
Ruben is the drummer for Blackgammon, a noisy, experimental punk-metal band comprising only Ruben and his girlfriend, singer/guitarist Lou. The pair are touring the country in an RV, playing at smallish clubs with enthusiastic crowds. As we learn in the movie’s opening moments, their sound involves lots of guitar feedback, lots of unhinged screaming, and some interestingly off-the-wall percussion. (Evidently Lou’s performances on stage are modeled on those of Margaret Chardiet, singer of the real-life band Pharmakon.)
But from there, we don’t hear much more of the group’s music. Instead, we discover that Ruben is going deaf. First there are bouts of tinnitus; over time, all sounds grow muffled and fuzzy. The filmmakers do an excellent job of blending normal sounds with the altered noises that Ruben hears. The viewer clearly gathers the key parts of each conversation, but also understands how everything comes through to Ruben. I was also blown away by the realism of how Ruben hears his own voice differently from how he hears others’.
A doctor finds that Ruben has lost about three-quarters of his hearing. He has to distance himself from loud noises to preserve the hearing he has left; cochlear implants are also an option, but they cost $40,000 or more, and insurance doesn’t cover them. At first Ruben tries to push forward with the tour anyway, but soon enough he has to confess to Lou what’s happening.
Ruben is a four-years-clean recovering drug addict facing a new crisis, so Lou insists he get help by joining a deaf community with similarly struggling individuals in the middle of nowhere. He winds up living in a house with strict rules and limited contact with the outside world, surrendering both his phone and the keys to the RV to Joe, who runs the community. Lou takes a plane to Europe, where her family’s from, and continues working on music there.
The movie’s central dilemma is how Ruben will rebuild a life out of his new situation. Can this rocker with “SCUMBAG” tattooed on his abdomen figure out how to fit in with a deaf community? Can he learn anything from a more structured lifestyle, spending his time writing silently and helping out at a school for deaf kids? Will he get money for the implants, or make his peace with a lifetime of silence? Will he ever reunite with Lou, either musically or romantically?
I won’t spoil how those questions resolve. I will say, though, that the film features wonderful dramatic performances from Riz Ahmed as Ruben, Olivia Cooke as Lou, and Paul Raci as Joe. Reportedly, both Ahmed and Cooke learned their musical skills specifically for their roles. The movie also sympathetically portrays the inner workings of its fictional deaf community, as the various members work together to welcome Ruben and teach him sign language.
Seen purely as a drama, Sound of Metal is quite good. Seen as a life lesson, it should teach musicians to wear ear protection on stage. Seen as an artistic depiction of deafness, however, it’s an amazing feat of sound engineering. In a year with sparser than usual cinematic offerings, it stands out as a great watch.