Sound of Metal is a coming-of-age music drama about a drummer who struggles to come to terms with hearing loss. Riz Ahmed has been on a roll, if you’ll excuse the pun, racking up some fine lead performances in the last few years. His most recent performance in Mogul Mowgli has a number of parallels with Sound of Metal, tracking a rapper’s battle with a degenerative disease on the cusp of a breakthrough in his career. Perhaps the surreal indie drama seemed like a natural overflow after garnering critical acclaim for his impressive turn in Sound of Metal.
Ahmed has been a rising star over the last decade, first getting acclaim through noteworthy British productions Four Lions and Ill Manors. It seems that all the hard work is finally starting to pay off with significant lead roles. As executive producer, the actor is fully invested in these films, even taking a writing credit on Mogul Mowgli. Sound of Metal finds him playing a do-or-die heavy metal drummer alongside his girlfriend on guitar and vocals. Doing a US tour of intimate venues via their old school Airstream motorhome, the two are completely reliant on each other, making the onset of hearing loss devastating both personally and professionally.
Based on a story idea by producer Derek Cianfrance, writer-director of Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines and The Light Between Oceans, this informs Sound of Metal‘s tone. It has a melancholy, a happy-sad dimension that permeates without losing its artful tenacity. Charged with writing and directing is Darius Marder, who shared credits with Cianfrance on The Place Beyond the Pines. While this serves as his second directorial effort, Cianfrance’s name carries weight and Marder’s editorial and writing experience give him a natural sway when it comes to storytelling.
The film has three phases… as Ruben tries to suck it up, attempts to heal through community and then takes matters into his own hands. As a character portrait, it’s immersive thanks to Ahmed’s energetic performance and character’s rage and self-denial. Seeing him battle against the inevitable, desperately hanging onto his sense of identity as a drummer, suffering the fall out from his all-or-nothing lifestyle and dealing with his misplaced destiny make for a powerful performance. Ahmed sinks into Ruben’s world playing off Olivia Cooke as his girlfriend Lou and sharing some wonderful moments with Paul Raci as seasoned would-be mentor, Joe.
“I hear you. He can’t.”
The drumming, intensity and mentor relationship echo the equally powerful drama, Whiplash. Yet Sound of Metal isn’t as soul-crushing or aggressive… offering a rich stream of optimism and hope in Ruben’s darkest of days. Sound of Metal may make you think it’s all about heavy metal but it’s more about sound, using the audio design as powerfully as in A Quiet Place. There’s much more actual sound but the filmmakers have made it possible to live vicariously through Ruben’s head, often hearing what he can – sometimes muffled, tinny or nothing at all. Aurally singular and ambitious, it’s the kind of film that actually works better with headphones. This near-revolutionary feel is echoed by Mathieu Amalric’s presence, who heralded the triumphant film about Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and The Butterfly.
Carrying an independent spirit, Sound of Metal has a documentary style flow to its authentic storytelling, drifting with Ruben’s spiraling misadventure into hearing loss. This makes it easy to live the experience, using compelling audio and rich visuals to draw you in. While Ruben is troubled and self-destructive with a chest tattoo to prove it, his frustration and sense of powerlessness makes him easier to identify with especially in these trying times. Garnering enough empathy from his girlfriend, mentor and the audience, makes this journey intimate and possibly even life-changing. Sign language, hearing loss and a feeling of alienation only seem to become real to those affected by hearing loss, but become much more real to everyone in Sound of Metal.
An excellent lead performance, fine supporting acts, brilliant sound design, a powerfully immersive story and creative screenwriting make Sound of Metal fresh and a beautiful beast of a drama. There are moments when you wish Ruben had more substance as a character, mostly redeemed by Ahmed’s performance, but his defiant behaviour and reactive spirit are in keeping with someone in his position. There’s a tragic undertone to it all, which is buoyed by the power of self-acceptance and community spirit. It could have made a brilliant horror but remains grounded, earnest and faithful in relaying Ruben’s meandering journey to screen.
The bottom line: Vicarious