Riz Ahmed can’t catch a break as a musician. The Emmy-winning actor plays a rapper on the brink of stardom when he’s struck down by an autoimmune disease in “Mogul Mowgli,” which just opened the Houston Cinema Arts Festival. This weekend, Ahmed can be seen in the theatrical release of “Sound of Metal” where he plays a punk rock drummer about to embark on a tour when he suddenly loses his hearing. I’m not sure if I want to know what the actor has planned for the final act of the Tragic Musician Trilogy, perhaps an opera singer diagnosed with chronic laryngitis.
The film opens on a stage as the duo Blackgammon rips through a loud, distorted, punk rock anthem, complete with screaming vocals by lead singer Lou (Olivia Cooke) and thunderous beats courtesy of drummer-boyfriend Ruben (Riz Ahmed). The two travel from one seedy gig to another in an Airstream RV that’s been retrofitted into a primitive recording studio.
Just as the band is about to embark on a major tour, Rueben begins to notice his hearing is becoming muzzled. He tries to hide his condition from Lou who would immediately cancel the tour so he could get help—the two are recovering addicts who saved each other’s life. Ruben got hooked on heroin while Lou struggled with self-mutilation.
A trip to the audiologist confirms that Rueben’s hearing is deteriorating rapidly, and in order to preserve what little he has left the doctor advises him to avoid loud environments. Rueben remains focused on the tour and continues to perform with the band until he goes completely deaf and walks off the stage in a frustrated rage.
Eventually, he comes clean with Lou and feeling that he’s about to relapse she checks him into a sober house for the deaf run by recovering alcoholic Joe (Paul Raci) who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. Raci is the film’s true gem. The actor-musician is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) whose parents were both deaf. ASL (American Sign Language) is his first language and he served two tours as a medic in Vietnam. On top of that, The Joseph Jefferson Award-winning actor struggled with addiction and led various Deaf AA groups. It seems like he was born to play this role and here’s a fun fact; he leads a Black Sabbath tribute band.
Ahmed is fantastic in the film. The actor and British rapper invested seven months of research for the role which included learning to play the drums and ASL. The raw emotion behind Ahmed’s performance leads to a realistic portrayal of an addict who’s not ready to face the facts that his life has changed forever. Rueben struggles with the reality of the situation by filling his life with false hopes including the notion that $40,000 implants will restore his hearing 100%.
Olivia Cooke, star of “Bates Motel,” “Life Itself,” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” delivers another solid performance as Lou, who seems out of place in the punk rock world. She has the look and the attitude to fit the bill but as the story unfolds we discover the real Lou who years of a privileged life with estranged father Richard (the wonderful Mathieu Amalric) may be the reason for so much rage and angst delivered on stage with the band. Cooke is one of the most interesting actors working today.
Apart from the first-rate performances, “Sound of Metal” thrives in authenticity thanks to director Darius Marder who immersed himself with Brooklyn’s deaf community during pre-production. The entire film is also open captioned in English, making it accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences.