Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
LIMITED TIME ONLY: Discounted Pint Glass/Tote Bag Combo at $10 sustaining member level.

In 'Sound Of Metal,' A Man Whose Life Revolves Around Music Faces World Of Silence


A man whose life revolves around music faces a world of silence in the film "Sound Of Metal." Actor and rapper Riz Ahmed stars as a drummer. Critic Bob Mondello found both the star and the movie electric.


OLIVIA COOKE: (As Lou, singing unintelligibly).

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Ruben at his drumkit, bleached hair blazing in the spotlight, tattoos glistening, drumsticks a blur. Ruben spends each night as part of a wall of sound - half of that wall, actually - on tour with his girlfriend Lou, their act raw and raucous enough that you might not expect their mornings to be jazz-inflected and gentle. This is their routine - touring from club to club in an RV, he rising first...


RIZ AHMED: (As Ruben) Lou.

MONDELLO: ...And exercising while she sleeps in, making them a green concoction in a blender.


AHMED: (As Ruben) Do you want me to get some smoothie for you? It's healthy. Want some? I wouldn't recommend it. It's disgusting.

MONDELLO: Four years together and very much there for each other - they need to be as recovering addicts, but they're doing well, ever off to the next gig. It's when they're setting up for the next one that Ruben's life changes.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yo. You sound checked yet?

COOKE: (As Lou) No - not looking forward to it.

MONDELLO: He's standing out front, arranging their T-shirts and albums, and it's suddenly as if he's underwater. All he hears is throbbing bass. He tries to clear his ears like when you're getting off an airplane, holding his nose and blowing - nothing. When they do their sound check, he watches Lou for cues. She and the sound guys are hearing this.


MONDELLO: He is not. He can see his hands moving. The sticks are the same blur as ever. He can feel that they're hitting the drum heads. But in his head, there's just a throb.


MONDELLO: A doctor confirms he's lost 80% of his hearing, that the rest is slipping away. To support his recovery, Lou calls his sponsor, who helps Ruben get into a 12-step program for the deaf. But then Lou also needs to slip away for both their sakes, though Ruben tries to follow.


COOKE: (As Lou) Ruben, you hurt yourself, you hurt me. I'll hurt myself, too.

AHMED: (As Ruben) Don't say that.

COOKE: (As Lou) Promise. Go back there right now. Promise. Say it.

AHMED: (As Ruben) Only if - I need you to wait for me, OK? You're it for me, Lou. You're my [expletive] heart. You're it for me. You know I'll fix this. It's not that hard, OK? Just come back here.

MONDELLO: Olivia Cooke's Lou is achingly vulnerable, while Riz Ahmed's Ruben is actively heartbreaking. The actor spent months learning both drumming and American Sign Language for the film, and he so inhabits the character that you can read him even when he's making sure his face is as inscrutable as an owl's.


TOM KEMP: (As Dr. Paysinger) You have to understand your first responsibility is to preserve the hearing you have.

MONDELLO: First-time writer-director Darius Marder and his brother Abraham, who co-wrote the screenplay, dedicate "Sound Of Metal" to their grandmother, who went deaf in adulthood and spent years petitioning movie studios to open caption films so that she could enjoy them again. To honor her, this film is captioned with one telling exception - no words on screen for signed dialogue to give audiences who can hear but aren't ASL-fluent a sort of reverse taste of the isolation Ruben is experiencing.

It says something that the filmmakers don't abandon him to that isolation even as they increasingly let us hear the world from his point of view, I suppose. They mark what's going - the caress of music, the whisper of wind, the scritch (ph) of a toothbrush - each precious. But as "Sound Of Metal" moves from cacophony to silence, Ruben is moving, too, from frenzy to stillness and to peace.

I'm Bob Mondello.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Gone into the rain today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.