Sound of Metal

‘Sound of Metal’ is a 2019 American drama film directed and co-written by Darius Marder starring Riz Ahmed (a British Pakistani actor) Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci and Mathieu Amalric.

The film has received critical acclaim for the performance of the actors Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci as well as its sound design. The film has received six nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards, which are going to be announced on 26th April 2021.

The core idea behind this film seems to have emanated from a desire to create a unique sound spectrum – starting from the high decibel metallic sound of electronic drums to the sound of buzzing in ears, to the indecipherable sound of missing words, to the noiseless world of a deaf rehabilitation centre, to the lack of it in a partial-sensory-deprivation zone of an isolated drummer learning to connect to the world through the written word, to the suppressed sounds of a song, to the incoherent reverberations of a party, to the muffled sounds of chatting of the children, to the faded sound of church bells and finally the soothing sound of silence – the sound spectrum is superbly designed and executed.

The plot revolves around Ruben (Riz Ahmed) a punk drummer and one half of the metal band, ‘Blackgammon’ and his singer girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). One day Ruben feels that he is not able to hear properly and goes to a see a doctor. The doctor tells him that he can make out only 20-30 percent words and his hearing is going to deteriorate rapidly; although a cochlear may help but that is too expensive. Reluctantly, Ruben relocates to a rehabilitation center for the deaf drug addicts run by Joe (Paul Raci), who in real life is a Child Of Deaf Adults (CODA) having grown up as a hearing child with two deaf parents. (Remember Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri in Gulzar’s ‘Koshish’ trying to figure out whether their newborn child is hearing impaired or not?).

Ruben is not able to confine himself at the rehab center for long.  He sells his music equipment and his RV (recreational vehicle) to fund for his implant surgery. Once activated, the implants allow Ruben to hear but cause irritating distortion that disrupts his attempts to regain his old way of life. Ruben flies to meet Lou at her songwriter father’s place in Belgium, where she has settled into a new life style.   Next day morning Ruben leaves while Lou is still sleeping. Irritated again by the distortions his implant is creating in his head, he finally removes his implant and processors and continues to sit in the open, now in silence. He is finally at peace with himself, connecting with the external world through his ‘ inner implant and processors.’ Happiness as they say is an internal process and not an external one.

The immersive sound design of the film takes the audience inside the head of Ruben, and takes them on an empathic journey of the protagonist starting from his world of high decibel drumming to the noiseless world of silent conversation with his inner mind.

The sound graph is also accentuated by the superb underplay by the actor Riz Ahmed by bringing out the disappointment, distress, frustration, and a strangulating sense of helplessness and defeat of a stage performer, who has suddenly lost his power of hearing. Besides, Riz another other actor who impresses with his acting is Mathieu Amalric as a French songwriter and father of Ruben’s singer-guitarist girl friend Lou played by Olivia Cooke. However, to my mind, the storyline could have been more riveting. Normally the storyline of a film overshadows the background music, but in case of this film, the sound design overshadows the storyline.

In January this year Riz Ahmed won the Best Actor Award at the 30th Gotham Awards. Paying tribute to Indian actor Irfan Khan in his virtual acceptance speech Riz said that 2020 was the year of a ’lot of loss’ and quoted Indian actor Irfan Khan’s words, which he ‘always thinks of ‘. ‘ I want to mention Irfan Khan, another great, tremendous actor, who we lost last year. Who’s words ring in my years right now, which I always think of: “Surrender to the dance of uncertainty” ‘, Ahmed said.

One cannot help but think of two Indian films, which had a similar theme-Manoj Kumar’s Shor and Gulzar’s Koshish. Leaving the technical supremacy aside, to my mind, the screenplay of Koshish was better than the screenplay of Sound of Metal and Sanjeev Kumar’s acting was as good if not better than the acting of the protagonist in this film.

Without romanticizing deafness ‘Sound of Metal’ makes a case for acceptance and embracing the inevitability of unpredictable changes in life- a point well made, cinematically, particularly audibly.

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O P Srivastava

A banker-turned filmmaker based in Mumbai. India.

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