Sound of Metal and the Acceptance of Deafness

Sound of Metal film

Sound of Metal is a 2019 Amazon Prime production. It was written by Darius and Abraham Marder, and directed by the former.

Included in many top 10 films of its release year, and an Oscar winner, we caught up with its metal beats to see lead actor Riz Ahmed steer the film’s handling of profound hearing loss.

Sound of Metal, Silence, and Cochlear Distortions (with spoilers)

Sound of Metal follows the life of Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), who lives in an RV with his girlfriend Lou Berger (Olivia Cooke).

The pair travels America in the RV, playing avant-garde metal music as the twosome band Blackgammon. For which Ruben plays the drums.

Despite leading a healthy lifestyle (you don’t get that ripped by sitting around taking drugs and eating burgers), Ruben suddenly finds himself facing rapid onset hearing loss.

He rushes to a pharmacy and is forwarded onto a doctor, who informs him his hearing is deteriorating at a pace.

The doctor lays out he has to stop drumming to prevent further hearing damage. Although there is another option—cochlear implants.

Ruben continues drumming, whilst latching onto the implants prospect to save his hearing (and music career).

However, as he’s also a drug addict in recovery Lou orders him to a rural drug addiction shelter run by Joe (Paul Raci), who reveals he was deafened in the Vietnam War.

Ruben initially hates the idea of spending time at the clinic, but after time warms to the people there and begins learning American Sign Language (ASL).

He also attends classes with a teacher called Diane (Lauren Ridloff—who’s a deaf actress), who’s teaching kids ASL. Ruben soon bonds with all of them and finds himself enjoying his time at the clinic.

However, he refuses to let go of his musical dreams. He sells is RV, obsesses over Lou (who has travelled to Paris whilst he recovers), and gets his cochlear ear operation.

It’s that decision that causes Joe to ask Ruben to leave the clinic, as he and the others believe he’s rejected the code of the clinic. That’s by viewing himself as disabled and needing to fix his hearing loss (rather than accept it).

Ruben moves on and then has his ear implants activated.

But he’s disappointed by the distorted, sometimes painful results. And once he catches back up with Lou he realises his presence is triggering off her self-harming anxiety issues.

Sound of Metal ends with Ruben removing the headset for his ear implants and sitting in silence. It’s an open-ended conclusion that’s sparked much debate online—what exactly would Ruben’s future be?

Sound of Metal is a very strong film. Despite its opening metal music numbers, there’s very little of that in the film (if the idea of thrash metal puts you off watching it).

The opening half an hour is unnerving, as Ruben goes through much confusion and fear over what’s happening to him.

Riz Ahmed (who’s terrific in other films, such as Chis Morris’ 2010 satire Four Lions) delivers a really outstanding performance.

And whilst some of the film’s narrative feels a bit disjointed at times, adjusted for film purposes to move the plot along, we can only say its contemplative pace works well.

We must draw comparisons to It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2004), starring Paul Kaye, as there’s a very similar musical theme of hearing loss. It’s a greatly underrated film, we think, offering more black humour than on offer here in Sound of Metal.

Objectively, you’d have to say this film is better. And a more realistic and open-ended outcome for its lead character’s hopes and dreams.

There’s no happy ending, just the harsh reality of Ruben’s situation. Alongside the impressive sound effects—designed to make you feel like your hearing is going—it’s an impressive emotional and technical feat.

Sound of Metal’s Production

Sound of Metal earned considerable critical acclaim and won Oscars for Best Sound and Best Film Editing. Sound engineer Nicolas Becker (also a composer) was responsible for the work there, as you can see in the above video interview.

The crew went to great lengths to accurately represent deafness. That included hiring a large number of actors from the deaf community, notably with Lauren Ridloff.

For his part, Riz Ahmed (who isn’t deaf) spent eight months preparing for the role. He committed two hours a day to learning American Sign Language, the drums, working out (as he’s buff for the role), and with an acting coach.

For scenes where Ahmed has to simulate struggling to hear, he wore auditory blockers to emit white noise.

Paul Rici (who plays the addiction clinic owner) also isn’t deaf. However, both his parents were. And he’s a notable worker across Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) in the US. He also performs with the band Hands of Doom, which is an ASL metal group that performs lyrics with sign language.

The film was shot across 24 days at the start, and end, of 2018.

Off its budget of $5.4 million, the film only had a limited cinematic run. That meant it earned back only $515,000 at the box office. That makes the film look like a commercial failure, but it’s an Amazon Prime production.

Its run on the streaming platform means it’s been viewed far more times than the box office figure suggests.

Notes on Hearing Loss

A few final notes on hearing loss. Obviously, young people like being carefree, reckless, and going out partying. That does lead many to expose themselves to very loud noises (and hearing damage).

Tinnitus is the one common factor here. The reality is modern life is so noisy many people will get it from just walking around a city or town.

One option is to sit quietly at home and do nothing fun ever.

Another is to take some precautions to loud music. Although many people don’t seem to take the issue very seriously (at least, until it hits them).

We remember debating with a commenter on YouTube some years ago (at least a decade) who was a musician. He actively chastised anyone who abandoned performing music due to tinnitus or hearing loss—he thought they were sell outs and not “in it for the music”.

Naturally, we pointed out there’s nothing “rock and roll” about being stone deaf and not being able to hear music anymore. To which the bloke was unrepentant.

Now, we hope that guy has since grown up a bit.

But we’ve since seen people discussing this film online. In a Guardian comment section, one bloke with tinnitus said he wouldn’t mind going deaf, it’d be worth it for attending metal concerts and hearing his favourite music in the flesh.

Musicians like The Who’s Pete Townshend, who began experiencing hearing loss after the 1967 Smothers Brothers explosions (caused by overenthusiastic drummer Keith Moon), established the non-profit organisation H.E.A.R in 1988.

That was designed to promote protection of hearing for rock musicians and other people. It doesn’t seem to operate anymore.

Townshend’s hearing issues date back decades—you can see him discussing it in 1978 with Keith Moon in the film The Kid’s Are Alright. His doctor had warned him to learn how to lip read.

His hearing loss was so extreme in the mid-1990s his role as a musician was pretty much redundant. However, he seems to have now reached a comfortable point with it and is still touring with The Who.

The band was famous for its stunningly loud live performances, which set many records for decibel levels throughout the 1970s. In fact, on 31st May 1976 a gig maxed out at 120 dB to become the all time loudest ever concert (at the time).

It just didn’t do its members any favours.

The Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey, has also been upfront about his hearing loss. He’s still touring with Townshend, of course, but he reveals here he has to take a special approach so he can hear anything.

Of course, it’s not just an issue for any bands on-stage. Anyone attending these concerts regularly will face a similar issue. Or even anyone out clubbing.

We feel it’s an issue few governments bother addressing. Certainly here in the UK there isn’t anything.

And as modern life gets louder and louder, we wonder whether tinnitus will be the norm for everyone in future.

2 comments

  1. I worry about the increased use of earbuds. My daughters spend hours per day listening to Spotify. They also wear them for social media feeds. They don’t crank the volume but it’s persistent wear and tear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read an article on that recently, earbuds do cause hearing damage. I’m 38, but I remember 17 year old me and I didn’t care if my mother told me to turn the volume down. Kind of reckless teenager mode. Definitely needs to be better education on this out there as no one told me. And my ears ring a fair old whack, these days!

      Liked by 1 person

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