I Hear What Ruben Hears in ‘Sound of Metal’

Gael Hannan
April 27, 2021

I finally watched ‘Sound of Metal’, prepared to dislike it intensely.

Truth? I was hoping I would dislike it intensely, because of everything I’d heard: how it got so much wrong about cochlear implants (CI), its single-note depiction of Deaf Culture bias against cochlear implants, its misrepresentation of how hearing health professionals work and, most importantly, how it left out crucial information on sudden deafness.

When Sound of Metal was released, you could almost hear the collective sigh of “oh no not again” from the hearing health advocates who use technology, residual hearing, visual information and other strategies to communicate. We are tired of our reality being under- or mis-represented in movies and television. Apparently, there’s nothing too romantic or dramatically appealing about people with hearing aids who talk.

I liked the movie more than I expected, even though it delivered on all my fears. But Sound of Metal also nailed three important things.

Emotions: the emotional reaction, the fear and confusion, at the dawning realization that one is becoming deaf, and the anger and isolation that follow.

Desire to hear again: the intense yearning of someone who has spent their entire life being able to hear, and for whom music is one of the main reasons to live, to get their hearing and music back.

What hearing loss sounds like: the brilliant audible depiction of how speech, music, and his own voice – sounded at various stages of his journey.

The movie won a well-deserved Academy Award for Sound. The viewer is allowed to hear both how Ruben hears sound and a hearing person hears it. An example is a dining room scene at the Deaf retreat; we hear Ruben’s silence and then volume up to sounds of the dinner table.

I related deeply to what Ruben heard – the muffled sounds of the human voice, footfalls, music, dining table clatter, as well as the cacophony of sound as he entered a garden party. Neither he nor the viewer could extrapolate a single voice from the loud and garbled babble of other guests. I know I’m not the only person who turned to their Hearing Husband and said, “That is exactly what I hear at parties.”

I did have an issue with how the single voice of the audiologist was presented at activation of his cochlear implant. It sounded garbled but intelligible (although I was reading the captions as well), and this is not the typical activation experience. As other hearing loss writers have noted in their reviews of the film, Ruben had not been deaf for very long, so he might have hit the ground running faster than the rest of us.

(It’s important to understand that I am a person with hearing loss listening to technically altered speech meant to depict what a person with hearing loss might hear. This extra layer of deafness could mean I’m not the best judge of how accurate the movie’s sound is. Just saying.)

In spite of the movie’s shortcomings, it has spurred discussion about hearing loss and deafness – that’s a good thing. A not-so-good thing is that potential cochlear implant candidates might be swayed by the film’s misinformation and handling of the CI process.

But the movie has given me a new tool to explain hearing loss. Now, if I want to explain how things sound to me at times, I can say, “You know that scene in Sound of Metal when Ruben can hardly hear the sound of his drumsticks? Like that.”


Photo: Enhanced still from the Sound of Metal

  1. I loved this piece. I heartily agree with your three “nailed it” assessments of the film. I would add to those the film’s representation of the impact of unsafe levels of noise on hearing.

    I also loved Sound of Metal. My experience of the movie mirrors my experience of watching the PBS World War II miniseries Atlantic Crossing, about Princess Martha of Norway and her relationship with the American president, Franklin Roosevelt. Following each broadcast on Sunday evening, I receive an email from PBS Masterpiece Theater that teases out fact from fiction in the previous episode. It’s both wonderfully entertaining and educational.

    That’s how I’d love us to be experiencing Sound of Metal and describing its contents – as a film that’s part fact and part fiction, and that, importantly, tells one person’s story rather than every detail of the average C.I. journey.

    Finally, it may turn out to be the case that our culture’s dismissal of loud noise as a root cause of hearing problems might be reinforced when the film is given an emphatic thumbs down with the expectation that it deliver what we would get from a good documentary.

  2. What a down to earth description, of the pros and cons of this elegant, intense film…..almost raw.

    If nothing else is gleaned from it, the amazing , truthful depiction of what it’s like to have sudden onset deafness. …confusion, anger, gut-wrenching emotional pain from the loss of a sense that is the lifeblood of a musician…. People not understanding how terrifying the loss can be. …the struggle of living between two worlds…the DEAF (big D) community …using only sign language, not talking,…and the HOH world, where people use hearing devices, such as hearing aids, assistive listening devices, cochlear implants, etc. , then, the film makers really captured the humanity of the shocking realization that the lead character would never return to his former world, here the sense of hearing was so critical.

    You really did nail all of these salient points.

    I am crying as a read what you wrote here.

    It hit home in a big way.

    Thank you for your heart warming review.

    It is so eloquent and real..

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