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Sound of Metal review – Riz Ahmed keeps swirling disability drama on the beat

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Darius Marder’s story of a hearing-impaired, ex-heroin addict drummer perhaps tries to do too much – but Ahmed gives it focus

The existential issue of disability is worried at in this vehemently acted addiction-recovery drama about a heavy-metal drummer who suddenly experiences hearing loss. Clearly, very personal experiences are here being transformed into fiction. Director and co-writer Darius Marder has avowedly based his movie in part on his hearing-impaired grandmother, and partly on an abandoned docu-drama project he was developing 10 years ago with director Derek Cianfrance called Metalhead, in which the real-life mega-decibel metal duo Jucifer were going to play a version of themselves in which the drummer is imagined to be (unsurprisingly) going deaf. Yet in this film, hearing loss isn’t the only issue at stake.

Riz Ahmed gives a typically fierce and focused performance as Ruben, drummer with an avant-metal band called Blackgammon; his partner Lou (Olivia Cooke) is guitarist and singer. They tour around the United States in an RV playing to loyal metalhead fanbases. They are happy enough until Ruben realises he can’t hear anything – a terrifying aural fog on the soundtrack – and the catastrophe is made even worse because he is a recovering heroin addict with serious relationship issues. Ruben’s sponsor suggests he applies to a radical therapeutic community run by a greying Vietnam veteran called Joe, in which role Paul Raci gives a quietly weighted and serious performance. Joe’s belief is that hearing-impaired people need to “learn how to be deaf”: to learn how to accept their condition as a valid alternative existence, and to find the stillness inside themselves which is the vital precondition for this learning process. But angry, bewildered Ruben is still planning to somehow get the money together for a costly, risky surgery that would restore some of his hearing – though that might mean selling his RV and his musical equipment, sabotaging the musical career that was supposedly the whole point.

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