‘Sound of Metal’ Review: Cymbals of Tranquility

Your heart has a beat, right? So does your soul. Keep it at the right tempo, and you’ll be alright.

Paradiddle. Conductive. Rimclick. Audiologist. Anacrusis. Anakusis.

All of the aforementioned terms almost sound musical. They hit the tympanic membrane as if it were a rhythm in a poem or a song… or a beat. The difference betwixt all six is that half are musical, half are detrimental to one enjoying music.

Let me preface this by saying I am not a drummer in the professional sense. I started drumming when I was twelve but since then have practiced on a few different instruments. I do, however, being the son of a music teacher do consider myself a musician.

Giving it some thought over the years, there are two things I fear losing: the auditory and the gustatory/olfactory. As a writer, I fear losing my sight or my ability to type, but they pale in comparison to the aforementioned. Accepting the loss of those things I would imagine is hard enough, but if music didn’t exist in my world, I wouldn’t know how to comply with the rest of the world itself.

In Sound of Metal (Amazon), drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is living la bohème with his girlfriend/vocalist Lou (Olivia Cooke) in an RV trailer, transient across France. They play metal shows that rival the sonic youth of old Swans or 80s My Bloody Valentine (read: ear bleedingly loud) to modest venues and eke out a sonic existence for themselves.

For as frenetic and rage-filled as their sound maybe, they break the fast with a healthy meal and a healthy outlook on the day. They have a little bit of jazz and dancing with coffee and a heaping of love before they venture onto their next gig. It’s the true artist’s dream hoping to gain more traction. That is until Ruben begins to experience bouts of hearing loss.

Now, I believe we’ve all experienced those times that you may hear an infinitesimal but palpable ping in your ear. That is high-pitched ringing. It’s not a disease and it typically goes away. You may also have a hum in the drum and that would be Tinnitus, which would be something to look at.

Ruben is an unstoppable force but he soon meets an immovable object. Though it may come in increments, we also see as the audience an almost deleterious glimpse into a person that based his whole life on music. It is his life. It is akin to breathing and if breathing were not an option, music would he subsist on.

At first, we see the first stage of grief – denial. Ruben swears that even after storming off of a good set he is going to make this right, though admitting to his main muse that he cannot hear anymore. He can speak, but hearing is out of the question according to a doctor. He’s basically drummed away a lot of that. Hearing in a fit of anger after his doctor said the malaise could be a few days or a few hours, he goes out with a bang that he cannot hear.

After a bit of consoling and a call to his (what we can’t hear) sponsor, he is granted passage to a place to help him. He isn’t sure what’s in store for him, and the lack of hearing makes him that much angry and pensive, though understandably so. He is a musician. Hearing is all that he knows. It is all music to him. Until it’s not.

Traveling all the way to a community for D/deaf people, he is given a very clear and cutthroat choice. Either stay and relinquish your cell phone, adapting to the silence of sign language… or languish on your own.

For a former addict, the excruciating extricating of his flank hit him hard at first. It is a fish out of the water, with no water to wade in and no gills to go outside of his mentor, his only will to overcome this malady, this vast ocean.

Taken in by the sage Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben gives up the right to his cellular phone, his keys to the Studio RV he and Lou once shared, and his ego that precedes. He’s used to this, being a former addict, but in the community, the rules are very straightforward and to the point. Everything has to be communicated through sign language. For a musician, minus the phone, plus the cigarettes, this is a horror show.

Ruben is accepted almost immediately into the community, coming from a broken past and he takes a pause to the children he’s presented with to learn basic sign language from. It’s almost like learning music for the first time, save for the sound. Each gestural letter to the word, phrase to sentence to the question is kind of like a paradiddle. It starts off slow, but then it builds up to a crescendo until it’s just basically a song. At some point, he’s actually cozied up a friendship with Jenn (Chelsea Lee).

Ruben intermittently checks on the emails from Lou until there are none further on the office computer. Now, because he looks over his shoulder every time this happens, it’s supposed to be surreptitious, but I’m still not quite certain if he’s playing out of school or not.

Regardless, a drummer gets restless, as they are wont to do. From going through alphabetical sign language contests with other kids to adapting to not speaking unless it’s to his mentor Joe, a life he once knew is now fading off into the distance… Until one day a like-minded child and he decamp from one of the school’s talent shows to go outside, onto the playground. A mere metal slide catapulted him into where he wanted to be, his dharma.

As Ruben sits, ruminating on how everything’s come to pass at the end of the slide, the kid stares at him with curiosity. An interesting thing happens. Percussion. Through a series of bangs of fists on the slide between the both of them but felt equal, almost like musical telephony, they communicate without words. This is the first time in a long time Ruben has felt like Ruben.

Mind you, Joe has granted Ruben a room and fresh coffee in the morning if he just sits in a room with a pen and pad and just writes what he feels (no drawings) until he has to sit down and be one with it all. It’s what Joe does and he sees the potential in one he’s taken under his wing. This actually frustrates Ruben to no end, as he’s this pent up anger from a messed up childhood with addiction to boot. Just because you’re out of the weeds doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods and Joe (a former alcoholic) knows this. Let’s just label it the cold turkey of emotional baggage.

Ruben is getting on well though. He’s now teaching the children of the school how to drum and is having lively conversations at dinner! He’s now a seat at the table, proper, but he always did, he just didn’t know it.

That is, until one day when he sneaks into the office to see what Lou is up to. He goes onto their band website and realizes that his boo, the one who lovingly guided him into the community for his own mental health was going on a Grimes route. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the reference, Grimes, at least when she started out as a vocalist with a drum machine and a few effects pedals. Ruben’s talent has now been replaced with circuitry.

The thing is, the denial is still there and he within every fibrous sinew in his body wants to hear again. I mean, who doesn’t? Who doesn’t want to play music again? Who doesn’t want to go back on tour with their beloved?

The decision is heard loud and clear when Joe asks Ruben to think about the future. How many lives he’s affected, how much joy and hope he’s brought to the community. He, in so many words, is handing the baton over. Yeesh, that’s a lot to throw on a guy. Ruben proceeds that night to drum out his frustrations. Like, on an actual kit. Inside his RV.

Now the RV has been in the possession of Ruben all along, just not the keys. He knows all the keys to open up his Shangri-La though, so he and Jenn break-in and observe the lay of the land. The cost of a very expensive surgery that might bring his hearing back through Cochlear Implants has a tenuous track record. This isn’t due to the process because perfect science isn’t a science.

Ruben decides to pack it all up and sell it all out. The production board alone is a pretty penny. He’s belted out the night before one last swan song, so the drum set goes as well. All is clean throughout the vessel but the vessel itself.

He decides to sell it for about $26k with the proviso that in 8 weeks if he can’t collect on it, the ride is theirs. Mind you, it takes 4 weeks for the healing process to take hold, and in another 4 weeks, the process is ignited. He’s planned this out and clearly Joe’s heartfelt speech about staying in the community as his life was the tipping point.

CUT TO:

After the surgery, Ruben approaches Joe.

The surgery is over and now Ruben now has a confession to make. Joe does not take it lightly.

Basically, Ruben wants out. He still pines for his life outside of the community. There is something in him that at the time the community cannot provide. He’s running from comfort. He’s running from the unknown. I think we can all at points in our lives can vindicate that, for better or worse.

Comfort sometimes is scary. I know, it sounds like a dummkopf statement to make, but for some people, being on the edge of not knowing what is around the next corner is comfort… but isn’t that just an ouroborus? His flavor is to go with what he’s comfortable with, which is his former life.

Joe’s been his better angel in all of this time. He’s put up with his tantrums and his victories. The one thing he, by rules of Deaf culture, is that the people of the community see their hindrance as not one, but rather as a strength. To flavor the water in a phrase, he is poisoning the well.

Therefore, he must leave. Goodbye, free mattress and breakfast. Goodbye, the kids he’s so enriched but shall not again. Goodbye, the friends he would have made and may have dated (Lauren Ridloff).

HELLO, MOTEL.

It’s only temporary, as he’s tried to adapt to living with his new neural implants, though all sounds seem muddy and distorted. Let me remind you that these were never super hearing aids. They basically replicate what you MIGHT have heard in a past world with a so-so success rate, depending on the person.

Some things are coming in right, some things are coming in very wrong. It’s akin to basically flicking the switch on a radio dial and trying to find the right tune. Did I lose you millennials? Ah, well, fuck you guys. It was a very real thing. So is the hearing loss… so maybe next time you go down a suburban road blasting out whatever the fuck you have, take a second to think about not the other people around you, but the person in the car – YOU!

Gingerly stepping off my apoplectic soapbox, Ruben eventually finds the palatial home of Lou’s father, otherwise known as The Man (Bill Thorpe) in Belgium. Through a series of admissions and admonishing, we find out that A.) Lou is coming back tonight, B.) Her dad never liked Ruben C.) After Lou’s father’s wife killed herself, she garnered resentment for him and D.) Lou will be happy to see Ruben again.

Did you get all that? I think Ruben did, but he’s still hard of hearing and still trying to adapt, so I say, ignorance is bliss.

Once Lou arrives, she is shocked, pleased to see her old flame ignited anew. Lest we forget, her father is holding a soiree that night, and his daughter is to perform. It’s a lot to take in when you can only take in a certain amount and are still adapting, but Ruben is determined to get back to the good ole’ days. The halcyon days.

Later that night, at the party, Ruben feels completely out of place. The cacophony of the idle chatter makes his device go off the rails. It sometimes tunes in, other times, it’s just noise. I personally think, even with pitch-perfect hearing, that is the sound of people flocking to each other.

Do we truly have anything interesting to say at a party? It’s usually just banal small talk, which, oh, count that as one of my fears.

Either way, though Lou tries to engage her beloved in the conversation, he feels like an outsider, so that’s where he goes. To outer rims. He stands out looking in and sullen as Lou takes notice. The knife is twisted further when Lou and her pops perform a song written for her mother… almost a eulogy. He can’t even hear that properly with the surgery and he’s brought to tears.

Later that night, as they cuddle up, though they speak about a reunion, they both realize that they’ve saved each others’ lives for the best and that the band ain’t gettin’ back together. No time. No way. He saved her from self-destruction and she saved him by giving him the serenity to cope with things he cannot change.

As the dusk succumbs to the dawn, Ruben takes a look at his love and heads out the door. Quiet. Like a church mouse.

He puts on his hearing aids and realizes that they can hear slightly better, but the pealing of the church bell sounds like the cymbals that he used to pound on in his concerts and is disconcerts him. He takes them off and silence is now melodic.

SOLO:

Going into this film, I thought it was going to be about a drummer that guided his way through a tour with hearing loss. This was so much more. This goes through what are you if you’re not what you that you were destined to be. Though the first few minutes were a beautiful paeon unto the mastery of drumming (read: double bass drum), most of this film is filtered through our protagonist’s ears. We hear as he does. The loss of a basic human function through something we can still feel within our eustachian tubes is completely Oscar-worthy and the fact they deal with it through humanity is only right- it’s not solely poignant but rather poetic. This is a sleeper and anybody that has listened to music (I figure all of you) can agree, it would be a blessing to keep though ear drums nice and taut, like a snare.

Not like you can sleep on it anyway- the beats of this movie are savage enough to keep anybody up.

Robert Kijowski
Robert J. Kijowski is a screenwriter who enjoys a good chuckle and an even better weep when indulging in art both good and even better bad. He enjoys the company of strangers in a theatre but adores the camaraderie of friends watching Netflix. He also loves to talk- a lot. This can be read through his recaps and reviews on the Workprint or heard through his weekly movie podcast, After the Credits. His presence can be felt through Facebook, Spotify or Ouija. Don’t use the latter though- he almost always ghosts people.

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