Review: Sound of Metal
Posted on December 16, 2020
Whaaa—two posts in one week?! Well, I figured I’d slip another post in because I want to quickly share my thoughts on a film I recently watched, Sound of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed as a heavy metal drummer.
I have to be wary of movies that are about drummers. On the one hand, you have something like Drumline, a flick that’s pretty silly but mostly watchable. Then you also have that other movie about the jazz drummer — the one I try (and fail) to pretend doesn’t exist. However, Sound of Metal has a premise more intriguing than any of those other films. You see, Ahmed’s character Rueben becomes victim to a musician’s worst fear: he goes deaf.
Rueben fronts a prog–metal duo named Blackgammon, drumming with his girlfriend Lou, the band’s guitarist. Their tunes are tippy, experimental, and very loud. Touring around the Midwestern US in their RV, the two are preparing for an upcoming gig when Rueben notices a loud pinging in his ears. The next morning, he finds that most of his hearing is gone; a doctor tells him the rest will go soon, and it’s never coming back.
The onset of Rueben’s hearing loss is a bit quick; the movie’s just over 2 hours long but there’s not a whole lot of screen time showing the progress of Rueben’s ailment. But that’s fair enough — the movie doesn’t need to remind us that years of loud music isn’t healthy for you.
So, Rueben sees a doctor but the reality doesn’t quite set in; he holds out for cochlear implants, even after being told they’ll run at least 400 grand and he’ll have to pay for all of it out of pocket. In reality, they cost close to 100 grand, and insurance coverage is indeed a crapshoot; scroll over to Wikipedia to see a list of other countries that would take care of it outright with their evil government–run healthcare. (#godblessamercia #iloveinsurancedeductibles)
Once Rueben realizes what he’s gotten himself into, he starts to lose his mind, with the fear of relapsing into a heroin addiction looming over him. His rehab sponsor helps him get to a deaf commune to pull himself back together.
There’s been a lot of justified praise given to the movie, namely concerning Ahmed’s performance, who’s really the star of the show. Restrained and understated, Ahmed lets every emotion bubble up, but only when the movie needs it. He acts with a great amount of taste instead of trying to win you over with empty and pompous rage. The sound design helps draw us in even more, putting us in Rueben’s shoes (really, his ears). Instead of switching to contrived moments of silence, Sound of Metal lets us hear Rueben’s world as a garbled, squashed, and cruel mess. He’s so close to hearing. But he can’t.
There’s really a wonderful attention to detail, much more than the film’s contemporaries. For one, they actually bothered to mic up Reuben’s drums for the concert scenes (that’s a low bar, isn’t it?). More than that, you’ll notice things like Rueben ripping the monitors out of his ears during a gig when things really start to go south, so he can try to hear something.
Truth be told, there’s not a lot of drumming in the movie, and that’s probably for the best. Still, the few music scenes are done with real conviction, substituting a sterile and synthetic assault on the senses with a spacey, drifting style that serves the subject matter much better. I’m sure there may be some glaring inaccuracies. Thing is, I really didn’t notice or even bother to look for them. It’s not like the movie really tries to get in your face with how punctilious it wants to be.
In the end, everything feels authentic and genuine — Ahmed learned both the drums and American Sign Language for the film, and Reuben’s mentor at the commune is played by Paul Raci, a child of a deaf adult (CODA). Even better than that, Sound of Metal never feels narrow–minded or caught up in its own world.
This is not a movie about drumming, or even about being deaf. The film is a stirring look at artistry, coping, loss, longing for the past, and uncertainty about the future. It’s admirably restless; with no bloated or mawkish melodrama, the movie gives so much to unpack with Rueben. Has he come to terms with his situation? Is he still holding out for the implants? Does he know what he even wants for himself?
While it’s only tangentially connected to its percussive premise, Sound of Metal is a fascinating and uplifting story for any artist. The film uses drums very effectively as a vessel for its tale; while music, deafness, and addiction are central to the story, Sound of Metal doesn’t puts its eggs all in one basket. It’s not scatterbrained but it never leans into one singular component. It’s a very real movie, grounded and accessible, one that won’t leave you feeling sorry for Rueben, but grateful for what’s around you.