Pre-pandemic, we were attuned to our regular rhythms, completely clueless that in just a whiff, they would be interrupted forever. Now, as we’re still soaked in a period of uncertainty, Sound of Metal, a non-pandemic film, shakes us and pokes us with the question, “How are you accepting the fact that things will never be the same again?”
The film tracks Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a metal drummer who is on tour with his vocalist/guitarist partner Lou (Olivia Cooke). His life takes a sudden turn when he finds out he is suffering from intermittent hearing loss. To get his hearing (and music career) back, he takes his sponsor’s advice and applies to the therapeutic deaf community facilitated by Joe (Paul Raci), only to find out that they’re more focused on accepting the condition, not solving it. Determined, he does whatever it takes to get money for surgery and cochlear implants.
Nabbing Best Sound and Best Film Editing at the recent Oscars, Sound of Metal makes a name for itself by being the rock god of aural storytelling. Rarely do we see a film that will force us to sensorially experience not only deafness but also how it’s like to wear cochlear implants. Audibly discomforting at times, Sound of Metal’s most recognized hook is not only in its bravery to capture a muted world but also its empathy in being a sonic tour guide to a metal drummer’s stages of grief.
While the film speaks in high volume as a modern-day disability story, underneath its waves are immutable layers of a high-end psychological drama. As the audience dives deeper into the plot, the hearing loss becomes a device, initiating a dissection of a character’s coping capacity in an event of a devastating identity loss. In Ruben’s reality, his distinction as a metal drummer is strongly attached to having functional ears. When he is confronted with the news of his condition, he undergoes a range of emotions—brilliantly accompanied by natural sounds—exhibiting denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.
In a way, Ruben’s story is an echo of our current disturbed wavelength as a generation going through a global health crisis. Similar to the effect of Ruben’s hearing loss, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a huge disruption to our general “normalcy” while also unconsciously revealing our strong attachment to it. It’s interesting that we came up with the term “new normal” instead of saying a “new era” or “new age”—it seems like a phrase of an intense longing for the what-once-were or a cushion from the painful irreversible effects of the pandemic. A generational response to the traumatizing ride of forced adaptation; a faint light in a current reality with an insecure future.
Though history claims that pandemics end, it’s difficult to believe it when you’re still in the darkest part of the tunnel. But Ruben’s tale subtly feels like a little torch of hope. It presents itself as a testimonial of a person able to successfully transcend to the other side of his crisis, finding acceptance and equilibrium with his newly-found post-normal. It also serves as a reintroduction to deafness: it turns out to be a special personal reality where, if embraced properly, peaceful stillness can be a default.
While watching, I can’t help but think of Sound of Metal as an offspring of Damien Chazelle’s phenomenal Whiplash, but not to a point that the son outlives his father. Both are truly legendary. Both have impressive drummer leads and made their marks in the cinemasphere, not only because of their technicalities but also through their well-thought-out and lingering final notes. Whereas the final minutes of Whiplash ends on a high, justifying Andrew’s hardships as a jazz drummer, Sound of Metal does the complete opposite, although still sharing the similar intensity. It concludes itself with a plateau of comforting silence—ironically, the perfect background for a metal drummer enjoying his loudest moment.