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4 things we can all learn from "Sound of Metal"

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

This thought-provoking Oscar-winning film brings up some complicated hearing loss issues


Sound of Metal gives hearing folks a glimpse into the kind of trauma some newly deaf people experience.. While hearing loss can create many levels of adversity, denying or fighting it may not be the answer. It's often the stigma itself that causes the most pain of all.


MINOR SPOILERS AFTER THE TRAILER AND BELOW THE DOTTED LINE

Sound of Metal (2019) brings you inside the head of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer sent into a tailspin when profound hearing loss hits him suddenly. Concerned that he'll relapse into heroin addiction, Ruben's girlfriend and bandmate convinces him to join a Deaf sobriety community led by a wise veteran who lost his hearing in Vietnam. There, Ruben learns American Sign Language, discovers new ways to soak in life, and makes a fateful choice.


Nicolas Becker's Oscar-winning sound design aims to let the audience at large hear approximately what Ruben hears. Becker pulled it off with creative microphone rigs, distortion software, an anechoic chamber, and interviews with people who lost hearing. I can't think of another film that offers this kind of hearing perspective, or "point of hearing," as writer/director Darius Marder calls it.

 

This section may contain minor spoilers but does not give away the climax or ending of the movie! These are my 4 most important takeaways from Sound of Metal.

  1. Hearing loss is not a handicap. This is the message I'm trying to preach, and I'm thrilled to see an Academy Award winning film bring it to the mainstream. The truth is that hearing loss, at all levels and all ages, is normal and common. Some use hearing devices and others adapt to life without them. While the Americans with Disabilities Act classifies hearing loss as a disability, people with hearing loss are capable and worthy of living full lives. The sooner society adopts hearing habits that honor our differences, the better life will be for everyone.

  2. How suddenly you can lose your hearing. While sensorineural hearing loss and tinnitus may be more common symptoms of long-term excessive noise, none of us should rule out acute acoustic trauma. In Sound of Metal, Ruben loses his hearing right in the middle of a performance. It can also happen from a single exposure to loud noise, such as an explosion. Paul Raci's character, Joe, tells Ruben he became deaf after a bomb went off while serving in Vietnam. Hearing loss and tinnitus happen to be among the top reasons for VA disability claims.

  3. Hearing loss can simultaneously bring trauma and peace. It wasn't until I read about Sound of Metal that I realized addiction treatment for the d/Deaf can be scarce. People who become deaf later in life, as opposed to being born deaf, can be susceptible to addiction as they cope with the trauma of losing a primary sense. But the movie also reveals how hearing loss can lead to peace and tranquility, as Ruben begins to accept his new existence. He finds new ways to communicate and experiences sound through vibration. These moments echo some deaf perspectives I've read on social media. People have deep appreciation for the stillness and lack of stress that comes with hearing loss. As one woman told me, "I never have to worry about being woken up earlier than I want!"

  4. Hearing represents something different to every individual. Some interpretations I read of Sound of Metal were critical of Ruben, saying he handled his hearing loss predicament the wrong way. I would argue that's not for anyone to judge! As a professional drummer, Ruben's entire livelihood hinged on his hearing. Music is part of what kept him clean. Why wouldn't he try to cling to life as he knew it? One thing I like most about the film that it's not written to make hearing people comfortable. It's as raw and complicated as hearing loss can be. It made me think about how I would react if my hearing loss suddenly crashed from mild-to-moderate to profound. I would grieve my hearing and regret not taking better care of it. Learning to communicate would be an epic adjustment! This reflection is inspiring me to start learning ASL, not only to be a better ally to the d/Deaf, but in case my hearing takes a nosedive in the future.

To say the least, Sound of Metal is a controversial film. Because I have no firsthand knowledge around cochlear implants, I took the time to consider the wide range of perspectives of those who do. While some maintain that the film is unfairly critical of the choice to use CIs, others appreciate seeing CIs portrayed as something other than a happy medical miracle. The controversy reflects the fundamental nature of hearing loss itself: every individual experiences it differently.


Let me hear your hot take (or regular take), and watch the making of Sound of Metal, in the Hearing Habits Forum. If you are d/Deaf or have firsthand knowledge of cochlear implants, please add anything I missed in this post, or call me out if I got it all wrong!

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