In Amazon’s new drama Sound of Metal, about a drummer who eventually loses his hearing, viewers are given a glimpse of the main characters Reuben and Lou in their everyday lives. The couple live in an adorable Airstream camper, traveling from town to town to play in a two-person noise rock outfit. Reuben rocks a Rudimentary Peni shirt over a tattoo that says ‘Please Kill Me’ as he makes Lou a green smoothie; then the two dance around languidly to soul and R&B records. The message is clear: they’re technically a metal band, but, like, a good metal band. An artsy, hipster metal band. Not like metal metal, like those people with all the hair and the patch jackets.
While a harrowing depiction of hearing loss, Sound of Metal is the latest in a long line of Hollywood movies to use metal as a lifestyle that serious characters grow out of. In the same vein as films like Rock Star and Lords of Chaos before it, the movie enjoys the trappings and credibility of the genre, but finally sees heavy metal as a lot of noise when moments of dulcet vulnerability are the goal in life. To them, metal looks cool and feels genuine, but if a character is to display emotional maturity, the eventual goal is to move beyond the genre and onto something else.
For classic fans, this treatment of metal is probably a big jump from the good ol’ days. ‘80s movies generally depicted metalheads as nihilistic monsters or booze-addled goofballs, whose life plans included playing pink guitars in boiler rooms (1989’s Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan), getting trashed at seances (1988’s Night of the Demons), or eventually finding the stage (1984’s This Is Spinal Tap). Only one real drama was made with sympathetic metalhead characters, 1986’s harrowing teen murder story River’s Edge; but that same year saw the release of Trick or Treat, a movie about a dead heavy metal singer who murders people after his record is played backwards and he’s unleashed from hell.
That said, these ridiculous depictions of heavy metal fans are almost more palatable — and definitely more entertaining — than the ‘serious’ ones. The most egregious and widely-recognized example of this sort of movie is 2001’s Rock Star. Originally titled Metal God, the film is inspired by the life of Tim “Ripper” Owens, the Judas Priest tribute singer who eventually joined the band after the departure of vocalist Rob Halford. Mark Wahlberg portrays a down-and-out metal fan whose ultimate dream comes true — until he realizes how shallow and heartless his musical heroes actually are. Finally, when the other guys can’t accept his edgy album art and soulful alt-rock, he bails to Seattle and starts a real band, whose music sounds like the Gin Blossoms.
Unfortunately, the film is straight-up is baloney. Judas Priest are known for being one of the more thoughtful bands in metal, and rather than turn into some Seattle sad-sack, Owens went on to perform with Iced Earth and Yngwie Malmsteen. When speaking to MTV at the time, the singer said, “There’s no telling what they put in there. If I could sue, I would.” The filmmakers’ message was clear: you can’t just keep liking metal. Real people grow up and perform music that gets sold in a Starbucks check-out line.
An even grosser example of this trend is Lords of Chaos, the 2018 movie about Norway’s infamous second wave of black metal. Just before the film’s climactic sequence, Mayhem guitarist Euronymous cuts off his long black hair, plays some Tangerine Dream, and puts on a collared shirt. These actions are a hilariously blatant metaphor for the guitarist giving up his troublesome metal roots — which might make sense if that actually happened. In fact, as pointed out in a Kerrang! fact-check of the movie, most of Euronymous’ ‘maturation sequences’ were entirely fictional, including the whole character of his girlfriend, who appears to have been created to include a female character in the movie and show how love can conquer metal. Meanwhile, when Euronymous’ bandmate and murderer Varg Vikernes arrives, he is performed as a sadistic high school jock — an out-of-character depiction of the tortured, humorless Vikernes, which seems included to harken back to the cliched depictions of metalheads in the ’80s.
And now, there’s Sound of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed as drummer and ex-drug addict Rueben whose burgeoning career is cut short when he loses his hearing. While the film’s depictions of hearing loss and the pain that comes with adjusting to it are beautifully done — Paul Raci, the actor who portrays Rueben’s mentor in coping with his new life, deserves an award for his performance — its use of metal feels incidental and obvious. Rueben wears Rudimentary Peni and GISM shirts, broadcasting just how male his music is (they’re also his only shirts–come on, guys, every metalhead owns one pair of pants and 87 concert tees). The clubs Ruben band plays at are occupied by other languid, attractive art rockers with modern-art band logos. It feels as though director Darius Marder wrote the movie about a different genre of music, but then saw Bell Witch at Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus and thought metal would be a cool setting.
But worst of all, Sound of Metal commits a sin of which Lords of Chaos and Rock Star are equally guilty: there’s no metal music in it. All three of these films are hung with the fashion and attitude of heavy metal, but it apparently never occurred to the directors that the music is the most important part of metal culture (hell, Sound of Metal has ‘metal’ in the fucking title, and we never hear a full metal song). Had they taken metal seriously, the makers of these films would’ve found awesome examples of heavy music with which to soundtrack their movies, which would in turn show why these stories are important in the first place. Instead, they use metal as a costume; the art itself isn’t worth giving screen time. People might get scared off by the big loud noises.
The only genre of film that’s done metal right thus far has been comedy. Though at times cheesy, 1994’s Airheads features three-dimensional metalhead characters who act and sound like people we know; the movie also includes a performance by White Zombie and included everyone’s favorite joke about Lemmy. 2015 Deathgasm had a lot of wiener gags and demon gore, but the film’s metalhead characters are believable, and in the end they’re even more metal than they were before (the female lead closes the movie with Cannibal Corpse commentary). Finnish 2018 road comedy Heavy Trip is totally ridiculous, but seems to understand the weird, confusing emotions of your average headbanger. These movies all have one common thread: they portray metal bands and their fans as people rather than academic specimens of outsider youth subcultures. And it feels as though the people who wrote them had at some point actually listened to a metal song.
At the end of the day, metal fans can’t be that torn up about Hollywood’s mishandling of the genre, as the film industry is just one on a long list of people and that simply don’t get it. But it’s still disheartening to see that in 2021, the metal scene remains a fashionable freak to filmmakers who are too lazy to really understand it (and we had high hopes for Sound of Metal, too). Maybe someday, Hollywood will hire actual metal fans to make movies, people who aren’t afraid to load the soundtrack with the heavy, powerful music that makes us feel less alone. Until then, the culture will just be something that directors use to illustrate how a character can, with luck, eventually grow into a ‘normal’ person just like everyone else.
Words by Chris Krovatin