When AC/DC vocalist Brian Johnson made public his struggle with hearing loss, it came as sobering news to metalheads. The ear-splitting quality of hard rock and heavy metal so beloved by its fans slowly destroys the very organs that musicians need to create that same music. As hard as it is for fans to come to grips with this reality, the effects this has on the actual musicians must be incredibly traumatic.
This dilemma is explored in the new Amazon original film Sound of MetaI. Darius Marder explores the inner turmoil of a drummer with hearing loss in his feature film debut as director. British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a recovering drug addict who lives with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) in an old RV. Together they play in a sludge metal band called Blackgammon, loosely inspired by real-life band Jucifer with whom Marder had made an unreleased documentary about.
While on tour, it becomes clear that Ruben’s playing is becoming greatly affected by his hearing problem. The uninsured Ruben desperately goes to a local pharmacist for help. The hearing loss is already so advanced that the pharmacist has trouble communicating with Ruben. He manages to point Ruben to the right direction of an ear specialist.
It is in this scene we first get to see Ruben become truly vulnerable. His anxiety is evident in his fidgeting body motions and quivering voice as he frantically asks the doctor what options he has. Upon being told that there are implants that may return his hearing, Ruben’s eyes widen with hope. When the doctor tries to bring Ruben back to reality by telling him that the cost of the procedure is highly expensive and insurance doesn’t cover it, Ruben doesn’t flinch. Music is the only thing he knows and he won’t give up.
Meanwhile, Lou is concerned that the stress that Ruben is under will push him to use drugs again. After much convincing, Rube agrees to go to a support center for drug addicts who are also deaf. This group is lead by a Vietnam vet named Joe, who lost his hearing through a bomb blast while ironically listening to music. The character is played by actual deaf musician Paul Raci, the frontman of Hands of Doom ASL Rock, a Black Sabbath tribute band.
Joe brings Ruben to a school to learn sign language and get to know the children and fellow adults who are also deaf. It is Joe’s attempt to persuade Ruben to accept his disability. It is now up to Ruben to make the choices that will affect his health and well-being. Will he learn to accept his disability and join the deaf community or will he sell his belongings to get the surgery and attempt to return to his old life? Will Lou be waiting for him either way?
Ahmed’s portrayal of Ruben really carries the film. When Ruben frantically tries to convince Lou he can continue the tour despite his rapidly deteriorating condition, Ahmed displays so much sadness and agony in his eyes and voice. When the film slows down in the deaf school scenes, Ahmed keeps you interested by portraying the joy Ruben feels when he successfully signs the alphabet in front of a classroom of supportive students or when he bonds with a troublemaking kid in the school.
Darius Marder expertly puts you in the head of Ruben by alternating the sound in the film. At various times the sound is clear, muddled, ringing or mute. When Ruben first encounters the deaf community, their sign language is not subtitled, thus making the audience feel his sense of being an outsider. Once he learns the language, we then see subtitles and begin to feel the connection he now has with his newfound community.
Sound of Metal is a truly engrossing film. Marder, whose previous experience was mostly film editing and documentary work, shows real finesse in directing a drama and surely has many more great feature films in his future. Ahmed, already an Emmy winner is heavily favored for an Oscar nomination, and he is certainly deserving of one. Whether you like metal or not, Sound of Metal is a fascinating film and worth watching not only for Marder’s direction and Ahmed’s acting, but for its respectful and honest portrayal of the deaf community.