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Spoiler alert! This article discusses crucial elements of the film, including plot and key messages.
I was excited to watch Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime, though I suspected it might bring up some difficult feelings and that I may be highly critical of a movie portraying the hearing loss experience.
The movie begins loudly and directly with the viewer immediately immersed into the atmosphere of a live concert. We focus on heavy metal drummer, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), drumming passionately, and accompanying the singer, his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke).
We arrive rapidly at the central topic of the story, as Ruben experiences a severe sudden hearing loss, waking up to a world of muffled and distorted sounds, and confusion. Ruben, who has a history of addiction, joins a community of deaf recovering addicts, and we follow him on his hearing loss journey.
There are parts of the film that I feel excellently depict the experience of living with hearing loss. However, I also feel there is some misleading information and are some missed opportunities.
An Excellent Representation of Living With Hearing Loss
One of the most poignant scenes for me was the morning when Ruben woke up without full sound. He is pictured in the kitchen area of his trailer desperately trying to pop his ears. I found this scene incredibly powerful; it strongly resonated with me and I found myself holding back tears at this early point in the movie. I had lived this moment four years ago. Immediately following my sudden hearing loss in my left ear, my head and ears felt full of pressure and I repeatedly tried to relive this discomfort by pinching my nostrils, forcing breath into my nose.
Following his hearing loss, Riz Ahmed softens his voice. Since my hearing loss, I am not always sure of the volume level I am speaking, and this is particularly the case in noisy environments. I often lower my voice to limit the possibility of me speaking inappropriately loud.
In the movie, different sound effects are creatively used to depict what Ruben is hearing. When people are speaking there are muffled speech sounds accompanied by captions, to show the viewer the dialogue he is missing.
When Ruben is fitted with his cochlear implants, it shows how he is able to converse in quiet environments with his girlfriend and her father, though the introduction of background noise creates hearing difficulties and discomfort. There is an excellent scene where Ruben first experiences the noise of a party through his implants. He looks bewildered as he tries to focus on the conversation but finds the noise of music and loud chatter overwhelming.
In another scene, the viewer has an insight into what it is like to hear with a cochlear implant when we hear the ringing of church bells as mechanical and distorted. The noise as Ruben walks down a street after being fitted with his implants, reminded me of my first few days trialling a CROS hearing aid. I too was overwhelmed by everyday sounds and the distortion was painful, frustrating and exhausting.
Some Information About Hearing Technology and Management
The movie features various technological devices that support communication. A real-time speech-to-text computer system enables Ruben to speak to Joe, the deaf rehab community leader. Ruben is seen using a captioned telephone, with a built-in screen that displays text captions of the conversation during the call. Also highlighted is the effectiveness of the simple use of a pen and paper, to write instructions or key information for someone with hearing loss.
Some Missed Opportunities and Misleading Information
The Emergency of Sudden Hearing Loss
Ruben’s interactions with the audiologist are extremely brief and he is told immediately that he won’t get any hearing back.
Yet, the most common treatment for sudden hearing loss, especially when the cause is unknown, is corticosteroids. In some cases, there is a possibility of regaining some or even all the hearing, and it is important to administer treatment as soon as possible following the loss. Even though Ruben sought medical advice immediately, this treatment wasn’t even mentioned.
As someone who has experienced a sudden hearing loss and didn’t immediately seek medical attention, due to lack of knowledge and understanding of the emergency of the situation, I feel the movie missed the opportunity to bring some awareness to this poorly understood condition.
Hearing Aids not Mentioned
Although Ruben’s hearing loss is severe, it isn’t a complete loss. He has residual hearing in both ears, though there is no discussion with the audiologist about hearing aid intervention. In fact, during his first consultation, there is a conversation about cochlear implants being a possible treatment. Perhaps the loss was too severe, but I find it strange that hearing aid intervention wasn’t even tried, before discussing implant surgery.
The Portrayal of Cochlear Implants
With little consideration, Ruben elects to have implant surgery. He has always lived in the ‘hearing world’, as do his loved ones. This is a decision I understand and one I would also make, should I lose the rest of my hearing.
However, implant surgery is a big decision as it involves an invasive operation and many appointments with doctors following the implantation and leading up to the day of activation. There are even more appointments with an audiologist once the implant is activated, particularly in the first two months, where adjustments are made to tailor the implant to the user and give support with rehabilitation. Of course, to show this journey in detail would have taken the focus away from the story, though the viewer is given no insight into this journey and the timeline from implant surgery to returning to his everyday life seemed very short.
The film does a great job of showing the challenges of becoming accustomed to implants and of isolating sounds in background noise. This heavy focus on the difficulties, however, leaves the viewer feeling that Ruben is disappointed with his implants, giving a somewhat negative representation of cochlear implants. Yet, many people are happy with their cochlear implants, and being able to ‘hear’ again is a positive experience.
The Deaf Community
I found Ruben’s time with the deaf community support group fascinating and an enjoyable part of the film. He learns sign language (very quickly!) and develops strong bonds with the group and also with the children in a class for children with hearing loss. I particularly enjoyed watching Ruben teach the class how to drum on overturned buckets.
However, the acceptance of the deaf community and any ties made are immediately cut when Ruben tells the group leader that he has had the implant surgery; Ruben is promptly told to leave. Although cochlear implants may raise some issues in the deaf community, I found this a very harsh and unbelievable representation.
I also feel there are misconceptions around sign-language—just because someone has hearing loss, it doesn’t mean they automatically know how to sign or decide to learn. Many people with hearing loss don’t learn to sign as their friends and family are all ‘hearing’ and don’t communicate through sign language.
The Story of Ruben’s Girlfriend
We saw how Ruben’s girlfriend, Lou, moves on with her life and starts experimenting with her own music in Paris. But the audience doesn’t see the journey up to this point and the processes she goes through to get to the point of going solo. I was left wondering about her journey.
My partner has lived my sudden hearing loss experience closely with me. I spoke to him about his opinions regarding the storyline around Lou.
My Partner’s Opinion on Lou’s Story
“I really enjoyed the film; it explored some great areas. However, I felt the girlfriend realised too quickly—Ruben ran out of the gig, Lou asked, “What’s wrong?” He replied, “I’m deaf.” and she immediately accepted it. Acceptance took a lot longer for us; there were a few weeks at the beginning of not really believing what was going on.”
“The girlfriend’s journey of acceptance was harsh. Although one of the rules of the rehab organisation was to stay without family, she gave up on him quickly. She made the decision to leave him. We might not agree with her actions but it brought home awareness of how she couldn’t cope. It left a strong impression that this affects the partner and not just the person with the hearing loss. Had she been there throughout it wouldn’t have given the viewer the understanding of the impact of hearing loss on a partner.”
Overall, it’s wonderful to see a film bringing attention to sudden hearing loss and some aspects of living with hearing loss, and the Deaf community. Although I feel there is some misleading information and are some missed opportunities, many issues were addressed in the two-hour running time of the movie. It would have been impossible to include all aspects of the hearing loss experience in this limited time, without taking away focus from the story.
I enjoyed the movie and it is brilliantly acted. Riz Ahmed skilfully portrays key elements of the hearing loss experience. I felt emotionally drained after watching the movie, as it’s a story close to my own. With a heavy focus on characters and emotion, the movie is captivating, and the fragility of our hearing is clearly portrayed. There is an emotional balance to the film that depicts what it is to be human and to deal with loss, which gives the audience pause for thought.
Excellent recap. I have not seen it yet but will definitely soon. It doesn’t parallel my experience like it does yours but any movie that brings more awareness to hearing loss is good. Many thanks to your partner for his input. Another older one (2007) called “Music Within” with Ron Livingston, is also an eye-opener and deals with the tinnitus a bit more. He was instrumental in authoring the “Americans with Disabilities Act”.
Have a great day, Carly!
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Exactly! It’s great that they are bringing awareness to hearing loss and giving some insight into what it’s like to navigate the hearing world without a full ability to hear. I will look for ‘Music Within’ and give it a watch – thanks Al 🙂
Hope you and Patty are well.
Like you, I lived almost everything that Ruben went through, so this is now my new favorite movie. Seeing it was cathartic for me. Perhaps you missed including the issue of stilness, since I also know people with CI who use to rest for times from their device and take it off to feel the peace of hearing nothing and that is valuable to me.
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Thank you for the comment. Yes, I do understand the issue of stillness and can imagine how relaxing times of hearing nothing must be, after removing your hearing device. I have unaided single-sided deafness (the loss in my deaf ear is too profound to aid), and I struggle around lots of noise. It’s always good to enjoy some peace, though it’s difficult with tinnitus.
Oh hey this sounds good Carly. I’ll have to subscribe to Amazon Prime again 😀. Just a quick thought on implants……it’s not unusual for the benefits to be very rapid in someone with adult onset loss. The information sessions at the centre where mine was fitted said that this was especially true if the loss is recent. In my case (where the loss wasn’t very recent……) I was hearing MUCH better in a week, and had gained almost all the benefits after about 5 or 6 weeks – including being able to hear very well in noise and everything sounding completely natural. Amongst the people with implants I’ve met that sort of trajectory isn’t unusual. Of course, it’s not a universal experience but it’s not uncommon.
Anyway! I must watch the film!!
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Hi Vera, How are you?
Yes, it’s a fantastic film and definitely worth a watch! Thanks for the extra info about cochlear implants – it’s interesting how everyone’s experiences are unique… It must be amazing to hear well in noise!!! Yes, I think you’ll enjoy the film, Vera 🙂
Hope you are well.