Review: Sound Of Metal : Pop Culture Happy Hour Sound Of Metal tells the story of a heavy-metal drummer, played by Riz Ahmed, who experiences sudden hearing loss that changes every facet of his life. The film is nominated for six Academy Awards - including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
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In 'Sound Of Metal,' Riz Ahmed Rages Against Silence

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In 'Sound Of Metal,' Riz Ahmed Rages Against Silence

In 'Sound Of Metal,' Riz Ahmed Rages Against Silence

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

"Sound Of Metal" tells the story of a heavy metal drummer, played by Riz Ahmed, who experiences sudden hearing loss that changes every facet of his life. The film is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor and best supporting actor. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about "Sound Of Metal" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining me from his home in Washington, D.C., is NPR music's Lars Gotrich. Hey, Lars.

LARS GOTRICH, BYLINE: (Imitating death metal growl).

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I think that should be your only contribution to today's show. Also with us from New Jersey is film critic for rogerebert.com Odie Henderson. Good to have you back, Odie.

ODIE HENDERSON: Thank you for having me back.

THOMPSON: And finally, making her POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR debut is music critic and journalist Maria Sherman. Hello, Maria.

MARIA SHERMAN, BYLINE: Hello. Hello. Thanks for having me.

THOMPSON: Ah, it's great to have you. So in "Sound Of Metal," Riz Ahmed plays a guy named Ruben. He's a heavy metal drummer in a band with his girlfriend Lou, played by Olivia Cooke. They're both recovering addicts who are on the road together when he experiences sudden hearing loss. She checks him into a rehab facility for deaf addicts run by Joe, who's played by Paul Raci. As Ruben is embraced by his new deaf community, he finds himself torn between his new life and his old dreams. The film is directed by Darius Marder, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay with Abraham Marder and Derek Cianfrance. And speaking of Oscar nominations, Nicolas Becker was also a slam dunk nomination for best sound. This film uses sound as a way of really placing you in Ruben's head at key points. The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Odie, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "Sound Of Metal"?

HENDERSON: Oh, I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I was quite touched by it for a variety of reasons. This past year, there've been a lot of movies that have been about empathy, about feeling for someone who you may not share the same experience with. And this was a movie like that. For me, the concept of losing a sense is something I'm familiar with. I'm half blind. And I went half blind when I was 14. So the movie spoke to me in that regard.

THOMPSON: Yeah. Maria, how about you? What did you think?

SHERMAN: I really enjoyed it. I think it might actually be my favorite film that I've seen in the last year or so. Because I am a music critic, I tend to listen as much as I watch something, be it film or television. And the way sound is used in this film is really incredible, I don't think like anything I've seen before. Even the use of, like, low frequency to give the viewer the sense that you are feeling something as opposed to hearing it was really evocative and harrowing at times.

And then I was sort of - the viewer, I guess, if you're hearing person, is forced to confront how you would navigate your own hearing loss were you to experience it. And then, you know, you're sort of confronted with the moral quandary of, well, if I were to lose this sense, is it the most devastating thing that could happen to me? Or am I sort of continuing to, like, adhere to a cultural stigma of hearing loss as a disability? There's layers to this that I really enjoyed. And also, I thought the band was cool.

(LAUGHTER)

SHERMAN: So that was good. I think, you know, whenever, like, extreme music of any kind is portrayed in film, if it's not a biopic or a documentary, it's quite often made to seem really whack. And it was good that the band ripped. So I appreciated that as well (laughter).

THOMPSON: Nice. Well, all right, Lars Gotrich, I know you have experience with feeling that bands rip.

SHERMAN: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: What did you think of "Sound Of Metal"?

GOTRICH: I agree with Maria. It was nice to see an extreme metal band portrayed as just a band that has lives and that has to work hard. But you only see that for maybe, like, 10 minutes. And then you get into the real story. I'll get into this much later, but I am a person with hearing loss. I was born that way. And a lot of the notes that it touches, certain scenes, really hit me hard in specific ways because I've been there. But I also feel very complicated about the way that those were portrayed. But otherwise, it was a movie that hit me very hard.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I felt similarly about it. I have, in recent years, been dealing with worse and worse tinnitus. And that tinnitus kind of added to the disorienting and really powerful quality of this film's sound design. My tinnitus often joined the chorus of this movie in interesting ways. I really agree with something Odie said about empathy and how many of the best films of this award season really put you in the shoes of people whose shoes you haven't occupied before. And I think this movie works really wonderfully as a companion to two very different films that are also nominated for best picture, namely "Nomadland" and "Minari." And I really felt, watching this movie, like I was learning things along the way.

And we'll discuss a few of the things that this movie doesn't get quite right about its portrayals. But I think that it manages to really harness the viewer's empathy by some truly remarkable performances at its center. I think Riz Ahmed is fantastic in this movie as somebody who's withholding as much as he's giving kind of at all times. And you're really experiencing this movie through him and some tremendous supporting performances.

So, Lars, you cover a lot of heavy metal music. How do you feel this film captures the experience of life on the road, like, specifically, like, for a band?

GOTRICH: Well, Maria can actually speak more to life on the road than I can 'cause she's actually toured with bands.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

GOTRICH: But I will say this - the way that they portray metal musicians as three-dimensional people was very moving to me because there's a scene where they're listening to music that isn't metal in their RV. Metalheads listen to other music besides metal. The thing that it does do well is when they're playing a show, they're, like, in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUND OF METAL")

OLIVIA COOKE: (As Lou, singing, unintelligible).

GOTRICH: They're, like, on the floor. They are right in the crowd. That feels like a show that I would go to. And that the RV - like, they live, they breathe, they record, they make food, they sleep in this big RV. And that comes directly from the - one of the first influences for this film, which was a sludgy metal band called Jucifer who, for the last two decades, has literally been nomads and have been traveling across the world in an RV. And originally, this movie was sort of based on them by Derek Cianfrance, one of the writers on this film. So it was nice to have, like, that direct connection to see Jucifer come out as, like, an actual texture in this film because the music they made kind of sounds like Jucifer.

THOMPSON: I didn't actually know that about Jucifer when I watched this movie. I went into this movie pretty cold. And I thought of Jucifer, like, half a dozen times during this movie. So they managed to capture the spirit of that band, you know, without stating as much, very effectively. Well, Maria, Lars mentioned you have toured with bands. Did you feel that this was an accurate portrayal of that?

SHERMAN: Absolutely. And the first time I watched it, it kind of hit a little too close to home. There's a scene where - you can only hear what they're doing. You see the RV kind of go down some road in some city that could be - enter any American city (laughter), where they're having this conversation about flossing not being a thing you do in public and what to do with your body once you die.

And these are the conversations that I kind of consider to be pretty mundane or even folksy because after, like, spending all of your time with the same people for weeks on end, you start to get to know them really well. And those are the kind of conversations you have that I really wouldn't have with anybody else, and I don't really know of another situation. Maybe when you're, like, a teen at camp. You're in this together. You share this small space, and you have to kind of fill the time with something. Granted, I toured kind of before the podcast renaissance, so maybe that occupies a lot (laughter) of those strange conversations that take part.

But kind of going back to the opening scene, where they're performing and the crowd is around Ruben - I agree with Lars. To me, that's more of a shared experience I have with, like, industrial noise shows, which makes a lot of sense 'cause there's usually not that many people there (laughter). So they kind of fill the space of the room, and they're performing on the floor.

And in rewatching the movie for this conversation, I realized Lou's performance reminded me a little bit of Pharmakon, the noise musician. At first, I thought maybe I'm just being lazy and thinking of, like, the first woman noise performer of contemporary time that I could think of, but actually, I learned that she sort of taught Olivia Cooke, who plays Lou, to play guitar and scream.

THOMPSON: I was really surprised watching this that Olivia Cooke didn't get more awards run. Riz Ahmed, obviously, got a lot of attention for a fantastic performance. Paul Raci as Ruben's kind of mentor into deafness - he's fantastic in this movie. But I really also thought Olivia Cooke does an enormous amount of heavy lifting in the beginning of this film and in the end of this film, and I'm surprised that performance didn't get more attention.

And I also really want to call out the screenplay. I - you watch so many movies like this, where they're doing a lot of telling instead of showing, and you're getting a lot of, like, expository dialogue that can feel very clunky - you know, as you know, I am the director of such and such. And this film manages to, in very subtle and sneaky ways, slip in the amount of backstory you need without hitting you over the head with it, as you said. There's a scene in this film early where Ruben is asked, how long have you been clean?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUND OF METAL")

PAUL RACI: (As Joe) How long you been clean?

RIZ AHMED: (As Ruben) Four years.

RACI: (As Joe) Four?

AHMED: (As Ruben) Hang on. I should check on Lou.

RACI: (As Joe) How long you two been together?

AHMED: (As Ruben) Four years.

THOMPSON: And you understand from that - they met in rehab, and their relationship is in many ways built around that, in ways that tell you a lot without bothering to, like, lay it out point by point. Lars, you alluded to this early on - you know, there have been some commentaries that this film doesn't really quite get this process exactly right.

GOTRICH: So as I said earlier before, I grew up with hearing loss - nothing as severe as - maybe as portrayed in this film, but it's still a world that I've kind of grown up around a little bit. And the thing this movie does is present deafness and loss of hearing as an either-or. That was the thing that I kind of - I struggled with a little bit. You are either all in this world, all in this deaf world, and you are only with other deaf people. Or you are in the hearing world, and you're all with hearing people. There's not a spectrum of how you can be in a hearing world or in a deaf world. You see elements of that, like, a little bit. Like, they use text-to-speech software a little bit in the movie. That's pretty commonplace for when you need to translate to somebody who doesn't speak sign language, but it's not shown commonplace elsewhere.

The way that music is used after he goes deaf is touching but kind of misses the point. There's a beautiful scene where Riz Ahmed takes a little boy out of a classroom and they start drumming on a slide.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUMBLING)

GOTRICH: You kind of see Riz kind of open up a little bit and kind of understand, oh, music is a language for me again. And yes, that's a nice, beautiful moment. But the thing is, deaf people enjoy music, too. Like, music is a multisensory experience. It's not just about what you hear. It's about what you see. It is about what you feel. And I wish a movie about a heavy metal drummer would have explored that world a little bit more.

There's also a lot to be said about - again, talking about the either-or-ness (ph). Riz Ahmed's character - his, like, desperation to get cochlear implants - cochlear implants are a very controversial surgery in the deaf community. Some support it, but most don't because deafness isn't something you have to fix. It is a beautiful thing on its own. It's a beautiful language on its own. And that was where the movie started to feel a little icky to me, and I felt like I needed to push back on it a little.

THOMPSON: In the movie's defense, I think it's being presented as how this particular guy feels, that he feels like this is a problem that needs to be solved. And he's - it's pretty consistent with his character to be constantly like, how do I get out of this? How do I get out of this? What is my way back from this? But I do think this movie - and it's been dinged for this quite a bit - it does present a lot of things as binary that are not binary.

GOTRICH: Right.

THOMPSON: And it doesn't necessarily get the medical side of sudden hearing loss quite right. The scenes involving an audiologist - I've read some writing, you know, from deaf and hard of hearing writers who've basically said this audiologist is committing massive malpractice (laughter), you know, by not presenting the full range of possibilities here, including - there is treatment for sudden hearing loss, you know, that can work and that is very important that is never presented as a possibility.

HENDERSON: Right. I think that a little bit of dramatic license was in play here so that they could make the last scene of the film work as well as it does. I think him losing his hearing after so many years of hearing is a different take on if you were born deaf or born with hearing loss. I have always had a visual problem, but losing an eye was a much more traumatic thing than just having to wear really thick glasses. So I kind of understood his desire to try to go back to a sense of normalcy. So I think that it works both ways.

I hear exactly what everyone's saying about it not being completely accurate, and for so few films to depict this, it's important to be more accurate. But I think dramatic license was at play here, and I'm kind of of two minds about it.

SHERMAN: Yeah, I agree with Odie wholeheartedly. And I think maybe the lack of nuance were kind of placed there to benefit hearing people who are watching a movie about hearing loss, which is, you know, always kind of sticky. But there were some - I think there was some nuance there that I benefitted from as a hearing person, and I know that sounds sort of terrible. But even the portrayal of when he first turns on the cochlear implant...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUND OF METAL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Can you hear me?

AHMED: (As Ruben) Say again?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Can you hear me? How does this sound?

AHMED: (As Ruben) Sounds weird.

SHERMAN: It's almost, like, fetishized - if you watch little videos of baby hears mother's voice for the first time and things like that. And those always felt kind of inaccurate as well because it's not just that it turns on the voices or the sounds that you want to hear, but it amplifies all the sounds around you, and that seems like it could be a little bit of a disorienting experience if you suffer some sort of hearing loss. And I guess, maybe to clarify earlier when I said I really like the portrayal of sound, it was primarily in moments like that beautiful slide moment that Lars mentioned earlier.

GOTRICH: For a movie that's kind of obsessed with the loss of sound, it is very much a sound movie. There are moments that, like, took me back to key moments in my life where I would experience, like, sudden hearing loss and then, like, get it back. And towards the end of the film, he goes to a party.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUND OF METAL")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, unintelligible).

GOTRICH: I got, like, pretty emotional watching that scene because that is what going to parties and bars where there are a lot of people talking - that's what it sounds like. Like, I literally have to put my ear up to people's mouths sometimes. And so we talked earlier about trauma and, like, how he is experiencing that trauma. The thing that that scene does is, really, it paints a vivid picture of what it is like to feel completely disoriented and isolated from the world, and I have never seen that on film before when it came to hearing loss.

And, you know, for as complicated as I feel about some aspects of this movie, the thing that it really does for folks that haven't experienced hearing loss is really put you in the place of, like, how lonely that can be without moving into environments that allow you to really experience the richness of the deaf community, which we do see in this film. There are beautiful scenes with deaf actors, and you really see them animate in a way that feels like you're missing out on something.

HENDERSON: Yeah, I like that they do not translate the sign language, for the most part, for you to feel the isolation, if you do not understand it, of what Ruben would feel losing his hearing. I liked that they kept that specifically for the audiences, for the deaf audiences, the audiences that understand sign language, specifically for them and not translating it, leaving people out on purpose, you know, so that it's just something just for you. A lot of movies, you know, don't do that, you know?

And I read an article where they were talking about what they were saying around the table - obviously, were probably not things that dealt with the drama of the movie.

THOMPSON: Right.

HENDERSON: But it was some issue about who didn't flush the toilet.

(LAUGHTER)

HENDERSON: And they were having animated conversation in that scene, and it was apparently about who didn't - what actor didn't flush the toilet.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) Well, speaking of conversation, I'm guessing that many people listening to this have strong thoughts about "Sound Of Metal." I think it's safe to say that, you know, for any reservations we might have, we pretty highly recommend this movie. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @pchh. When we come back, it'll be time to talk about what's making us happy this week, so come right back.

Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It is time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what's making us happy this week? Odie Henderson, what's making you happy this week?

HENDERSON: This is actually timely. I've been rewatching "Deadwood," the HBO series that was on from 2004 to 2006 and, a couple of years ago, had a movie to kind of tie everything up. I'm rewatching them focusing specifically on the language of the show - what people are saying, who's saying it and how that shapes their universe. I was starting to count some of the profanities, and I had to stop because I was running out of numbers. But it's poetry. And so I'm enjoying just listening to the show.

THOMPSON: Nice. Thank you, Odie Henderson. Maria Sherman, what's making you happy this week?

SHERMAN: Oh, man - being here, for one. I have two music recommendations because this is about extreme music, so I'm taking it as an opportunity to kind of celebrate some of my new punk favorites. There's this band from New Orleans called Joy, which is such a good name for a punk band. They kind of combine this, like, dark, industrial, post-punk, dead-panning, sternum-shaking bass. The first track on the tape is called "Dirty," and the chorus is just, dirty; I'm dirty; I'm dirty; I'm dirt...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRTY")

JOY: (Singing) Dirty. I'm dirty. I'm dirty. I'm dirt.

SHERMAN: ...Which feels like something maybe Lou would perhaps scream at you. And based on their genre tags on Bandcamp, they self-identify as anarcho Spice Girls, which I think is really just everything.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: That is your sensibility through and through.

SHERMAN: Right? Why am I not in this band? That should be enough of a selling point. And then the second thing is the best band on the planet, Philadelphia's Mannequin Pussy, just put out the first song from their forthcoming EP. It's called "Control." It does all the things that great Mannequin Pussy songs do. It's this sort of gorgeous pop-shoegaze thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

MANNEQUIN PUSSY: (Singing) I'm in control. That's what I tell myself when all the walls around me close in.

SHERMAN: And then it becomes, like, heavy punk - these sort of monstrous riffs and drums high in the mix. It's a tornado. And I can't, like, recommend it enough. It's addictive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

MANNEQUIN PUSSY: (Singing) Thanks for watching me pleading out and over all your sheets.

THOMPSON: So that's "Control" by Mannequin Pussy. Maria Sherman, thank you. Lars Gotrich, what's making you happy this week?

GOTRICH: So for the last five years, I've been getting back into comic books, specifically digital comics because I promised my wife that I would no longer collect physical things. So digital comics have been my thing. But recently, a metal band that I like called Arctic Sleep announced that they're putting out a 7-inch single with a comic book, so here I am breaking my rule.

I'll talk more about the music later, but the comic book is a lot of fun. It's called "By The Horns" by Markisan Naso and Jason Muhr. And the very basic premise is that it's about a woman named Ellie in this fantasy land that's kind of a mix of, like, magic and sci-fi. Her husband was killed by unicorns, and so she goes on a rampage to basically kill all mythical creatures from this land. And so it's like - it's really badass. But as you kind of get into it, a little bit of heart gets mixed in there, and so I'm enjoying that a little bit.

The soundtrack by Arctic Sleep is also equally badass. And the thing that Arctic Sleep does so very well is just, like, create these landscapes of, like, Gothic cathedral-sized metal that's just a huge bummer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLADE THROUGH YOUR HEART")

ARCTIC SLEEP: (Singing) Gone, gone are the days...

GOTRICH: So it's like really sad, really majestic, but very beautiful. And that's what's making me happy this week.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Lars. That's the comic "By The Horns" and the accompanying soundtrack by Arctic Sleep.

So this is far from what is making anyone happy this week, but I did want to say a few words about the wonderful actor Jessica Walter. She died Wednesday at the age of 80, and so much of the attention she's gotten in recent years was for her work as Lucille Bluth on "Arrested Development." She also did amazing voice work as Mallory Archer on "Archer," which was kind of amped-up Lucille Bluth, kind of turning her into somebody even sharper and meaner. But really, Lucille Bluth was Jessica Walter's masterwork.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT")

JESSICA WALTER: (As Lucille Bluth) He's a beautiful boy. They don't appreciate. It's his glasses. They make him look like a lizard. Plus, he's self-conscious.

JASON BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) Gee, I wonder why.

WALTER: (As Lucille) If that's a veiled criticism about me, I won't hear it, and I won't respond to it.

THOMPSON: In both roles, she's just indispensable. She's so cutting and funny and distinct. And, you know, both "Arrested Development" and "Archer" have stuck around in unexpected ways, kind of getting rebooted or coming back for limited runs in that way where nothing with a cult following ever really has to end. But this is kind of how you know that they actually do have to end because without Jessica Walter, what are those shows? She was so central and so essential. She had an incredible career.

You know, it's lazy to fall back on IMDb when you're summarizing a career, but her IMDb page is basically the modern history of television. She has 161 credits spanning roughly 60 years, and many of those credits are movies in addition to her TV work. She was in "Play Misty For Me." But the TV credits are really something else. She did win an Emmy for her work in the miniseries "Amy Prentiss." She was in "The Fugitive." She was in "Mission: Impossible." I remember my eyes lighting up when she'd pop up on some old rerun of "Columbo." She was on "The Love Boat" a lot. She was on "Quincy" and "Knots Landing" and "Murder, She Wrote," multiple iterations of "Law & Order," "The Big Bang Theory." She just wound up in everything, and she was always so good. If you watch a lot of reruns, she pops up like an Easter egg all the time.

And obviously, like I said, this is not what is making me happy this week. But her work has brought me so, so much joy, and I will miss her so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON: That brings us to the end of our show. If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations exclusive to the newsletter, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter.

You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me at @idislikestephen. You can follow Odie Henderson at @odienator - that's O-D-I-E-N-A-T-O-R. You can follow NPR Music's Lars Gotrich at @totalvibration - that's all one word. You can follow Maria Sherman at @mariasherm. You can follow editor Jessica Reedy at @jessica_reedy and producer Candice Lim at @thecandicelim. You can follow producer Mallory Yu at @mallory_yu and producer Mike Katzif at @mikekatzif. That's K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band Hello Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now.

Thanks to all of you for being here.

SHERMAN: Thank you.

HENDERSON: Thank you.

GOTRICH: Thanks, y'all, so much.

THOMPSON: Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all right back here next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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