Of the many things that occurred as a result of COVID-19 in 2020, as it related to the film industry, was that movies were either pushed over and over, rescheduled to a later date entirely, or sold to streamers. Films like Coming 2 America (2021) and The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) were snagged by Amazon Studios and Netflix respectively, going on to either join the pile of legacy sequels to be enjoyed and forgotten amid the other offerings or go on to Oscar glory. One such film is the bittersweet Sound of Metal, co-written by director Darius Marder and his brother Abraham from a story co-developed with original concept creator Derek Cianfrance, that explores a recovering addict metalhead drummer who loses his hearing. Resting at the #21 spot of my favorite films released in 2020, Sound of Metal is set to join the Criterion Collection with a series of brand-new materials that allow for a deeper look at the concept and creation of this emotional work.
Blackgammon bandmates, lovers, and both recovering addicts, Ruben and Lou (Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke), travel the country in their RV, making music, living together, and generally existing in a tightly packed habitat. Before one of their shows, Ruben’s hearing suddenly starts rapidly deteriorating, making it hard for him to play. When he gets a diagnosis that he’s down to roughly 20% of his hearing in both ears which makes Lou fearful that he may relapse in his frustration and panic, she finds him a rehab facility specifically for members of the Deaf community. There, under the guidance of Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben learns how to exist within this new space. That is, until Ruben discovers that Lou is making music on her own and makes moves to regain his hearing through a medical procedure. Trying to straddle two worlds isn’t easy and Ruben will have to make a choice of where he will land.
Sound of Metal is a film layered with ideas and meaning. It’s a story of two recovering addicts whose love is like a barbed tether, a cable that keeps them bound but threatens to rip them to shreds if one strays, requiring that they both maintain an equilibrium. It’s a story of two bandmates, artists, who find solace in their music, channeling their self-loathing and disquiet into something that’s not only digestible to others but identifiable/recognizable as a shared experience to aware listeners. It’s also a film about finding one’s place in the world, something which its lead character, Ruben (in a painfully quiet performance from Ahmed), has had trouble doing over and over, turning to drugs first, before, presumably, music and Lou came into his life. He pours himself into being her caretaker, something Marder makes plain via the sequence post-show where we see Ruben in an almost zen-like practice put together Lou’s breakfast. By making her his responsibility, he must therefore be responsible for himself. Thus, when he loses his hearing, presumably by no fault of his own (the opening sequence is of them playing but Ruben *is* wearing ear monitors), he collapses as he loses what he sees as his sense of self. If he can’t hear, he can’t play. If he can’t play, he can’t be Lou’s bandmate. If he can’t be Lou’s bandmate, can he properly do any of the other things he’s made his role? This downward spiral is why Lou doesn’t back down on putting Ruben in a home for addicts, for if he hurts himself, she knows she’ll do the same (barbwire cable, remember?). Ruben’s journey thus feels like a restart of what his original addict rehab must’ve felt like, except with the addition of hearing loss, thereby placing the character in a community he lacks the tools to communicate within (they sign and he can’t). Until Ruben starts to invest in his healing, accepting his condition as something that doesn’t require fixing, he fights and claws at his old way of life, never allowing himself to accept what is and explore it. Once he does, however, the film doesn’t fall into the typical uplifting/heroic disability story trope; rather, Sound of Metal merely deepens in thematic meaning and emotional heft.
As a proponent of physical media, any time any film is made available to the general public in a format that enables them to see it without need of the internet, I get excited. Digital access is great for reducing personal clutter and the idea of having something immediately at your finger-tips — just awesome; but the quality of physical media compared to digital is easily superior for a number of reasons, the largest being that not all internet providers are equal. This means that just because you can stream something, doesn’t mean that you’re actually getting it in the quality advertised (like the UHD video/5.1 surround sound experience offered on Prime Video at the time of this writing). Not to mention the compression issues that come from transmitting data and the tech used to decompress it at your home. There are far fewer things to address with home video and, on this version from Criterion, you can opt for a 4K UHD edition with a 5.1 surround sound DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, a 1080p Blu-ray edition with 5.1 surround, or the DVD, each one being the best possible version for the tech you have and will play without compression. While this may not seem like a big deal for a drama, cinematographer Daniël Bouquet’s (Elektro Mathematrix) work here captures the beauty of each moment, whether filled with rage (a Blackgammon show) or tranquility (Rubin creating a beat for a fellow classmate), the colors are natural in look yet artistic and gorgeous. The sound, however, is where the film truly impresses as Marder and sound editor Nicolas Becker worked together to create a specific perspective for Ruben that the audience could follow. To use the cliché, the lack of sound is deafening at times, making one feel as isolated in the moment as Ruben himself feels. Similarly, when Ruben’s cochlear implant is turned on, the thing he’s focused all his energy on obtaining as a cure-all for his aural deterioration, and the sound is metallic and garbled, the audience is allowed a sense of what Ruben is hearing, reminding us how Ruben finds himself once more separated from a community he thought himself a part of. (This, of course, goes back to the idea of how one views themselves and how they create ties to a community through superficial means versus cultivated relationships and self-awareness.) The review copy provided by Criterion is the Blu-ray edition, so I can’t speak to the 4K UHD version, but the Blu-ray is both visually and auditorily as engaging, if not more-so, than watching it on Prime Video thanks to the lack of compression.
Per usual, the Criterion comes with the kind of bonus features that extend the experience by delving into the creative process. This takes place mainly in two supplemental on-disc materials: 1) a 29-minute conversation between Marder and story originator Cianfrance and, 2) a short 25-minute documentary exploring the sound design via a conversation between Marder and Becker. While both of these are brand-new, recorded in 2022 for this release, there’s also a 14-minute behind-the-scenes featurette from the 2020 FYC campaign that involves Marder, Becker, Ahmed, Cooke, and Raci discussing the making of the film. There remain some Sound of Metal materials on the Prime Video YouTube channel and the new 2022 videos are not among them. What is most certainly already available is the music video for the song “Green,” which plays over the credits. For this release, there’s a new nearly three-minute introduction from Marder explaining the purpose of “Green” (a sort of 4th act for the film that explains what Ruben goes through after fade to black), as well as what the freedom of a music video allowed them to do with some of the unused 35 mm footage. Finally, included with the liner notes is a wonderful essay from critic/essayist Roxana Hadadi. In her work, “Throbbing Eternity,” she covers the character arcs of Ruben and Lou, their complicated love, and the pitfalls of Ruben’s notions of masculinity. That last part, in particular, was not something I’d considered, even after two watches, which is why reading essays like Hadadi’s is so important for elucidating the deeper well of artistic works. Great writers like Hadadi always open the door for other interpretations or concepts that one might not consider.
While there are plenty of other lesser known works that have yet to see the light of day, the very ones in need of preservation and restoration that are the reason for Criterion doing what they do, the addition of Sound of Metal delights primarily because it’s a streaming-only work whose presentation of a person learning that their life isn’t over simply because of a burgeoning disability is not only powerful but necessary. We live in a climate where any disability from the visible to the invisible is seen as a weakness of character. Here, in Marder’s work through a singular performance from Ahmed (one deserving of the Oscar nomination he earned), the audience sees via Ruben how life doesn’t stop or is diminished, but is just as full as one within the Hearing world. Inevitably, it’s all green.
Sound of Metal Special Features:
- 4K digital master, supervised by director Darius Marder and cinematographer Daniël Bouquet, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray and 4K UHD editions
- For the 4K UHD edition: One 4K UHD disc of the film and one Blu-ray with the film and special features
- Alternate French-dubbed soundtrack
- New conversation between Marder and filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, who share a story credit on the film (29:06)
- New program about the film’s sound, featuring Marder and sound editor Nicolas Becker (25:20)
- Music video “Green”
- New introduction by Darius Marder (2:56)
- Abraham Marder’s song “Green,” featuring outtakes from the film (5:18)
- Behind the Scenes featurette (14:11)
- Trailer (2:40)
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic Roxana Hadadi
- New cover by William Laboury
In select theaters November 20th, 2020.
Available on Prime Video December 4th, 2020.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD September 27th, 2022.
For more information, head to Criterion Collection’s Sound of Metal webpage.