Heavy metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) has his life thrown into chaos as he suddenly loses his hearing while touring with bandmate and partner Lu (Olivia Cooke). Ruben wants to get his hearing back and return to the tour and life as normal; but when his inner demons rear their head, Ruben is forced to find sanctuary in a deaf community led by the kindly Joe (Paul Raci) to recover and comes to terms with his new life.
The drama of a musician losing their hearing is a premise so simple it’s amazing it hasn’t been done in any major way before. Sound of Metal certainly delivers that plot, introducing us to drummer Ruben in the days before he partially loses his hearing and the fall out over the ensuing months. But Sound of Metal goes much further with this emotional journey, folding in addiction and co-dependence as further bridges Ruben must cross on the road to happiness. It gives the film depth. But I think it also takes too much away from the central plot.
Whiplash, although hard to watch, is the perfect example of capturing the dark side of obsession with one’s craft. That film’s soundscape is rich and textured, powering urgency and building tension. Sound of Metal, despite its title, goes a much quieter route. This counteracts the tension we should feel watch a former addict unravel as he is denied the chance to do what he loves, and leaves the film feeling flat. A movie about music should have been able to do much more with it.
Director Darius Marder takes on his first feature-length drama here, although you couldn’t tell from the impressive camera work and clever sound design. Much of Sound of Metal’s early scenes, in which Ruben and Lu are on tour, was performed to a live crowd. Grating, piercing metal music assaults our ears and sets the scene well for Ruben’s deafness to take hold and drown all the noise out. This is a highly effective but expected given the plot.
However, from there Marder opts for mostly silence through the bulk of the film, until towards the end. This seemed a wasted opportunity to give us insight into Ruben’s mind; into the chaos of an addict struggling not to relapse, an artist denied the chance to express himself. The film’s sole focus on the healing powers of the deaf community actually alienated us from Ruben’s struggles, making Sound of Metal seem tame in its presentation of addiction rather than subtle.
Sound of Metal took years and rounds of rewrites to get produced, with Marder and brother Abraham co-writing the script. But they run into the same problem as so many modern films do; Sound of Metal is just too long. Without the peaks and troughs of high drama, and with only one main character to focus on, the film drags towards the middle.
Ruben’s apparent recovery is also back-tracked on in a pretty major way, underwriting his character arc and making our emotional investment seem wasted. With polish, Sound of Metal could have been tighter, punchier, and meaner.
Riz Ahmed offers up the whole of himself in a gutsy performance. An actor that made his name in comedy, this turn (and a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination) will surely solidify his place as a leading man. Ahmed toes the line between the restrained style which defines Sound of Metal and moments of powerful outburst, and does a good US accent too.
Co-star Olivia Cooke’s performance is nearly as impressive, offering similar subtle emotional turmoil and (accurate) self-defensive off-handedness as she comes to terms with Ruben’s condition. Paul Raci is a good foil to this energy, a kind steadying presence even in the face of anger and disappointment. In a film with the emotions let off the leash more, Raci’s performance could even have been Oscar worthy.
A good film but weak when compared to other films that have ruminated on obsessive artists and addiction. A surprising Oscar contender considering years gone by, Sound of Metal is solid without ever being particularly inspiring.
Sound of Metal is heartfelt and raw, opting for emotional nuance over melodrama. However, this understated approach does make the film less memorable, a beat that fades quickly rather than leaving a long-lasting sound. 6/10.
Check out Sound of Metal for yourself on Amazon Prime!