Whilst 2020 has been a troubling time for blockbuster films, with many release dates pushed back to 2021, this year has seen a notable rise in smaller, more introspective indie films – and personally, it’s been all the better for it. The current streaming model has paved the way for more progressive and character-led narratives, with Sound of Metal proving one of this year’s bests. If you thought Riz Ahmed was outstanding in the London Film Festival hit Mogul Mowgli, just wait till you experience this film.
Directed by first-time feature filmmakerDarius Marder, Sound of Metal centres on punk-metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) who starts to experience intermittent hearing loss while performing at gigs. Following a consultation with a specialist, he discovers the devastating news that his condition will only get progressively worse – leading him to believe his musical career and intertwined relationship is over. After being checked into a remote sober community for the deaf by his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), he has to choose between accepting this new normal or chasing his musical career at a great cost.
Much like Mogul Mowgli, Sound of Metal vividly and realistically captures the effects and subsequent journey of an up-and-coming talent whose career is derailed following a significant diagnosis. Whilst the former focuses on the link between culture and identity, Marder’s debut is of self-discovery and acceptance. Initially based on Derek Cianfrance’s unfinished Metalhead docudrama, the film quickly switches from a road trip tour across the USA to a heartbreaking drama. This is a fantastic exploration of a significant character arc, with Ruben struggling to come to terms with the realities of his new life, along with the various stages of grief.
While the film could easily lean into melodrama, Marder guides the narrative into a much more profound and pragmatic approach. While Ruben initially (and understandably) despairs and rages over his diagnosis, he gradually learns to accept and even appreciate his new life. He discovers a real sense of community, friendship and even meaning there, teaching the children drums and designing tattoos for fellow retreat mates.
The exploration and portrayal of the often underrepresented deaf community is also well overdue, with retreat leader Joe emotionally stating “we believe being deaf isn’t a handicap and something to fix.” I can imagine how powerful it would be to read those words on screen. Along with the use of open captions throughout the film, Ruben brought American Sign Language coach Jeremy Stone on board to help in a number of critical roles. Stone spent several months teaching Ahmed ASL, along with directing the deaf community involved in the project and starring onscreen as the ASL teacher. This, coupled with ground breaking sound design from composer Nicolas Becker, gives the film a real authentic and fascinating perspective.
Once again Riz Ahmed proves what a phenomenal talent he is in one of his most immersive and realistic performances to date. Exploding onscreen in an intense drum performance, the British actor instantly captivates you. Portraying a multitude of emotions throughout, it’s Ahmed’s abject terror and despairing rage which hits the hardest. In preparation for the role, the actor spent several months learning American sign language and the drums, while spending significant time in the deaf community – and this truly pays off.
Thanks to the ingenious sound design and the use of intermittent static, distortion and low tones and vibrations, you’re completely drawn into Ruben’s aural perspective. While fellow Brit Olivia Cooke shares an intense but touching chemistry with Ahmed, (it’s obvious that they’ve saved each other from a certain lifestyle) she’s unfortunately somewhat underused. Paul Raci is another standout as retreat leader Joe, a former alcoholic who previously lost his hearing in Vietnam.
Pairing a career best performance from Riz Ahmed with Nicolas Becker’s groundbreaking sound design results in a truly immersive experience. Sound of Metal is a beautifully touching tale of acceptance and self-discovery, I just hope this isn’t overlooked in the awards season.