In a powerful story of a musician losing his hearing, Riz Ahmed turns in a spectacular performance that overcame my fears of disability appropriation.
Ahmed delivers an authentic performance on a couple of fronts. He has actual experience as a musician, and based on an interview I had with him, he took great efforts to familiarize himself with Deaf culture while prepping for this movie. While at the same time, Ahmed recognizes that he is by no means an expert on Deaf culture. Sound of Metal does provide several Deaf actors with roles as Ahmed’s Ruben Stone deals with a Deaf rehabilitation clinic for the majority of the movie.
Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder, played with open captions at all screenings at TIFF 2019, making it possible for those with hearing loss to see a film about hearing loss. However, a critique can be levied towards the captions themselves: for a story about music, not enough of it is described in the captions (and whole songs are not transcribed), meaning that hearing audiences will still glean more than Deaf ones. Another concern is that some ASL is cut off in the shot when the camera supposedly focuses on signers conversing with one another.
Despite these issues, Sound of Metal does get a lot right: it showcases the debilitating fear that one would experience while having a sense eradicated fairly rapidly: denial, anger, and pure, unadulterated fear are on tap here. Sound of Metal also showcases the pressures faced by being a partner of someone undergoing such a substantial life change, who has her own issues as well.
The moments where Ruben gets beyond his self-pity are important as Deaf culture is represented as being a viable, healthy lifestyle, and not one determined by the medical model of disability. Paul Raci (who is a child of deaf parents) delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as a wise guide for the troubled Ruben, who may or may not let his personal beliefs surrounding cochlear implants get in the way of Ruben’s healing.
Film is a medium in which we can experience many ways of living in this world of ours. Through alterations in the audio, audiences are given an opportunity to learn a little bit about what it is like to have hearing loss and to struggle with deciphering basic modes of communication. For this alone, Sound of Metal transcends the limitations of personal experience, allowing audience members to immediately (and realistically) relate to someone with a different perception of the world.