This film is classified (I think incorrectly) in the music genre. The story isn’t about heavy metal music, but about one person, already severely ravaged by years of drug addiction (and happily, clean for four years) who is suddenly confronted with an event that strikes at his very identity. It is the story of how he deals, for good and bad, with a substantial loss. As such, this movie is relevant to just about any of us, and isn’t just for those who like this particular strain of music.
But, the movie is definitely about SOUND! The intelligence of the sound design works on many levels. First, closed captioning is an intended part of the movie’s design, so do not turn subtitles off. Unless you already understand American Sign Language (ASL), you will need the captions to understand parts of the movie. The real genius in the creative use of sound is how we, the audience, enter the world of the deaf. The soundtrack threads back and forth (sometimes slowly and sometimes abruptly) between understanding clearly what is being said and a muffled and distorted version of speech and sound.
This is the second movie I’ve seen where sound is used so effectively to place the audience in the intended environment. The first was A Quiet Place (2018), which was nominated for sound editing but did not win. It was a horror movie, but made it into the Oscar list because, as I wrote in my review, “It is so groundbreaking in its exploration of sound that it elevates in the viewer’s mind the power of the aural experience usually reserved for visuals.” Sound of Metal does that, too. Through the use of sound, the viewer/listener learns to be in the place of people who cannot fully or only partially hear. What you hear—or not—is at least as important as what you see, and that is a critical message of this film.
Riz Ahmed was nominated for leading actor and, as all the critics rave, he did an amazing job. Brian Tallerico (editor of RogerEbert.com) wrote that a performer “needs to find a way to balance the unimaginable drama of something like going deaf with relatable humanity. One can see that empathy in every choice Ahmed makes… It’s inspiring.”
Supporting actors, when good, are very important at making the movie work, and that is no exception here. Olivia Cooke is terrific as Lou, his girlfriend, who provides the motivation to go to a therapy group for the deaf. Paul Raci, in the role of his lifetime, and nominated for best supporting actor, essentially plays himself, as he is the grizzled and stern leader of a therapy group. Raci is the son of deaf parents and a leader of a heavy metal band that sings in sign language and delivers a memorable performance, capturing the essence of tough love as he confronts Ruben in an all important scene that exposes the difficult decisions at the intersection of disability and addiction.
The movie was nominated for best picture. The sound design, Ahmed and Raci’s acting, and fast-paced editing all combine to create a wonderful picture. I don’t think it is quite best picture material, though. A big part of the problem is the ending’s ambiguity. It was one of those endings where you might debate with your viewing partner what it all meant. Which direction did he end up going? Sure, that means that everyone can, in effect, construct their own ending for the narrative, but that also means that the filmmakers failed to commit to their own idea of what it all meant. Is it a weakness of purpose and message that in the end detracts from the story? Still, this is a must-see movie for the sound design and the way it immerses us into the world of the deaf and hearing impaired. (4 Stars) Available on Prime Video. See more at https://michaelsmoviemoments.com/