James Jay Edwards reviews Sound of Metal, a film written and directed by Darius Marder, story by Derek Cianfrance, and starring Riz Ahmed. (Amazon Prime)
Rock and roll movies come in all shapes and sizes. They can be biographical (La Bamba, The Buddy Holly Story) or sensationalized (Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody). The music can either be right at the center of the movie (Rock Star, Josie and the Pussycats) or as a side piece to a bigger plot (Green Room, Uncle Peckerhead). But no matter how many rock and roll movies you’ve seen, you’ve never seen one like Sound of Metal.
Sound of Metal stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Rogue One) as Ruben, a recovering drug addict who plays drums in a heavy metal band called Blackgammon with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke from Thoroughbreds and Ready Player One). After years of relentless touring, playing at ear-bleeding volumes night after night, Ruben begins to notice that his hearing is rapidly deteriorating. He and Lou explore their options to slow the loss and salvage what hearing he has left, which, unfortunately for Ruben, means that his music career is pretty much over.
(Sound of Metal, official poster, Amazon Studios)
Written and directed by documentary filmmaker Darius Marder (Loot) from a story by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), Sound of Metal is an incredible film. It’s a complete three act-er, with each act more effective than the last. And each act is different in tone as Ruben goes from struggling musician to desperate patient, experiencing the temptation of his demons as well as the denial that his life is completely changing. Ruben doesn’t take a traditional Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey, but he takes quite a trip.
Although he is capably backed by a great supporting cast, Sound of Metal is Riz Ahmed’s movie, and he turns in a committed performance. He carries the movie on his shoulders. He not only conveys the frustration of a musician losing his hearing, but the temptations of a recovering addict whose circumstances have him on the edge of relapse, and he plays it all very well. But it’s the little things about Ahmed’s work that really sells it, things like how he hits his drums harder once his hearing starts to go or how he gets discouraged learning even the most basic of sign language. Riz Ahmed gives a career-defining, powerhouse performance in an extremely tough role.
(Sound of Metal, Amazon Studios)
And then, there’s the sound design. The audio in Sound of Metal is just as important to the storytelling as one would think it would be in a movie about hearing loss. When the focus is on Ruben, the sound becomes muffled and barely audible, throwing the audience into his maddening world of (almost) silence. The sounds are there, but they’re indecipherable. Interestingly enough, the viewer gets used to the effect along with Ruben, adapting to the perceived disability of the character. Marder also makes the brilliant stylistic choice of including open captioning for the movie, a decision that is at first a bit confusing, but soon enough becomes a welcome addition to the immersive theme of the film. Another way that Marder shoves the audience directly into Ruben’s shoes.
Sound of Metal is not a happy movie by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, it still has a certain feelgood quality to it. Ruben is a sympathetic character, and the audience feels for him, but his stubbornness and selfishness also expose his flaws. He’s a fighter, so even when it seems like he’s throwing in the towel, the audience is on his side. It’s a tribute to Ahmed’s performance and Marder’s direction that the viewer continues to root for Ruben when he’s being unreasonable with the people around him. And his experience is relatable, even to those who have never suffered any type of hearing loss. For those who have, Sound of Metal can be downright triggering. It’s a powerful movie.
(Sound of Metal, Amazon Studios)
Sound of Metal is an underdog story, the tale of a man who is faced with losing the very thing that makes him who he is. And that prospect terrifies him. As it should. And as it should all of us. But hopefully, most of us will just live the experience vicariously through this terrific movie.
Sound of Metal is streaming on Amazon Prime.