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"Sound of Metal" Review

UPDATE: This movie garnered an appalling six Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Sound, and Editing. The problematic ones are Picture and Screenplay. 2020 was a bad year and the Oscar nominations reflect it.


The most devastating thing that can happen to most musicians not related to physical infirmities like losing your hands would be losing your hearing. Other than Beethoven, there's not a lot of musicians known for performing while stone deaf and even good ol' Ludwig van was a composer and they can tell what music sounds like from reading the score. In general, "deaf musician" is as workable as "blind sniper." As a musician myself, it was with some interest that I approached Sound of Metal, the story of a drummer (and thus not a musician, hiyo!) whose life is upended when he suddenly goes deaf. Unfortunately, it's a woefully told tale.

 Riz Ahmed (The Night Of, Star Wars: Rogue One) stars as Ruben, the drummer in a two-man band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One) which is like a gender-flipped White Stripes except not good. While on tour, Ruben begins to experience profound hearing loss. Advised by a doctor that he may be able to salvage what remains of his hearing if he avoids loud noises (kind of difficult in his line of work), he naturally ignores the advice and blows out what remains. 

As a former junkie, Lou is worried that he'll relapse and gets the name of a program, a facility in a rural area for the deaf run by a deaf, recovering alcoholic, Vietnam veteran named Joe (Paul Raci). In meeting him, he lays down the strict rules of the place to Ruben, no contact with the outside world, everyone works, focusing on adapting to their condition. Lou has to go and Ruben initially rebels.

 Eventually he gets with the program, but is sneaking looks on a computer to see what Lou is doing, as she eventually starts doing music on her own. He sells his gear and the RV they lived and toured in to fund cochlear implants to restore his hearing, ultimately getting the surgery done. But because Joe and his group believe deafness isn't a handicap, Ruben is expelled from the group.

He  goes to Lou's father's house where we learn a whole bunch of backstory about her family; her mother committed suicide and her father is a wealthy French musician. Their reunion is strained and they end up parting.

 I only spell out the entire plot because there is so little to it and it ends up going nowhere slow. Why the sudden heavy stuff at the end? Why does Joe, knowing Ruben is a junkie and, rejected and cast out, likely to relapse, pretty much condemned to die for not adhering to the "we are not broken" mentality without care for how Ruben wants to live? That the cochlear implants don't sound right implies he wasn't counseled as to expectations beforehand or calibrated over time afterwards; it's not like getting a tooth filled. Also, the leap between Ruben resisting learning sign language and being shown as fluent is literally a hard cut to the next scene without as much as a "Six Months Later" or learning montage. It's as if a reel was missing.

The performances from Ahmed and Raci are very good, though Ruben being thinly-written means the Ahmed has to inflate the character himself. Press materials claimed he studied the drums for six months in order to appear credible playing, but that's laughable as all we ever see the band doing is bashing the finale chords of songs. Anyone could sit down and do what's shown. Tara Reid plays drums more credibly in Josie and the Pussycats and she's hit-and-miss in her accuracy. (Miles Teller in Whiplash fakes it really well.)

Raci is fine, but he is in real life not hearing impaired, but the child of deaf parents. This means he speaks perfectly clearly and not with the voice modulation issues that deaf people like Marlee Matlin (who won an Oscar for Children of a Lesser God) exhibit and this makes it hard to believe he is deaf. While those who go deaf as adults manifest less of the warble, they still have it; just record yourself talking with your ears plugged to see. 

One thing the movie really does well at is capture the sound of hearing impairment, muffling frequencies to get us in Ruben's head. (A Quiet Place did this as well with the daughter.) 

Despite a promising premise and good performances, Sound of Metal simply doesn't understand what it's trying to say as well as it imagines and ends up frustratingly inert.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

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