Riz Ahmed has a claim to be the most exciting British actor of our times. In Darius Marder’s upcoming directorial debut, The Sound of Metal, he delivers an Oscar-worthy performance
What are the chances? One of Britain’s most talented, intense and audacious screen actors stars in two quite separate movies, each addressing the plight of a music star who is suddenly struck down by a physical affliction, with the films released within six months of one another.
In Basaam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli (iTunes), Riz Ahmed plays Zed, a British Pakistani rapper whose dreams of a world tour are cruelly shattered by the diagnosis of an auto-immune disease that makes him dependent once more upon his parents, and compels him to confront profound questions about his identity, ambition and self-esteem.
And now here comes The Sound of Metal (Prime Video, 12 April), one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year, which has already scooped up six Oscar nominations – including nods for Best Picture, and for Ahmed in the Best Actor category.
In Darius Marder’s feature debut, Ahmed is the blonde-haired, no-holds-barred drummer Ruben, half of the metal duo Blackgammon, relentlessly touring with Lou (Olivia Cooke) – who is both his girlfriend and the band’s singer. Like Zed, Ruben is stopped in his tracks with brutal abruptness: in this case, he is going deaf, fast, and his musical future seems to evaporate before his very eyes.
As a recovering junkie, Ruben is persuaded that his sobriety is threatened by this capsizing misfortune, and seeks sanctuary at a rural retreat for deaf recovering addicts – where he struggles with the extent to which his life has changed forever and with the implications both for his music and his future with Lou.
As striking as the apparent parallels between the two movies may be, The Sound of Metal is very different to Mogul Mowgli. At its heart is the notion of acceptance, and the philosophical proposition that deafness is the basis of a culture and community, rather than a pathology to be pitied. Just as some movies are rooted in cinematography, so The Sound of Metal is, above all else, a character’s journey through a frighteningly turbulent soundscape (the astonishing creation of the film’s supervising sound editor, Nicolas Becker).
Ahmed’s performance is a career-best – which is saying something. Characteristically, he immersed himself in the role, spending months before principal photography learning American Sign Language and how to drum.
Though his extraordinary talent has never been in doubt, he has conspicuously resisted the conventional route to stardom, always putting integrity before easy advancement. Few actors of his promise and early stature would have embraced Chris Morris’s challenge to star in a satire on British jihadis: yet Ahmed’s courage – and Morris’s vision – paid off in the brilliant Four Lions (2010).
In 2016, he co-starred in the well-received Star Wars movie Rogue One, and, the following year, picked up an Emmy for his performance in the HBO miniseries The Night Of. There has been much talk of his potential to succeed Daniel Craig as James Bond.
Yet his focus has remained implacable: he plays the roles that intrigue and challenge him. He also remains a committed activist and powerful voice for diversity of representation in the arts (watch his remarkable 2017 Channel 4 Diversity Speech, delivered at the House of Commons).
No male British actor is producing such consistently exciting work, and – given that he is only 38 – there is every reason to believe that the best is yet to come. Meanwhile, he truly deserves to lift that golden statuette on the evening of 26 April.
Speaking of which: do book your place at our next Creative Sensemaker Live on Friday 30 April, at 13:00-14:00 BST – at which we’ll be reviewing the hits and misses of the 93rd Oscars ceremony, the fashion triumphs and disasters, the surprise winners and the shock losers. This is your chance to thank the Academy (or lament its poor judgment – as the case may be).
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Another strong contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar (Riz Ahmed is also up against Steven Yeun in the Best Actor category), Lee Isaac Chung’s exquisite film explores the American dream through the eyes of a Korean immigrant family with the most delicate of brush strokes. Yeun excels as Jacob Yi, longing to make his fortune on the land in rural Arkansas, and to persuade his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri, also superb) that his hopes are justified. While Jacob pursues his Steinbeckian adventure in the fields, a chamber piece is enacted within the walls of the shabby trailer in which the family lives – as Monica and her mother (Youn Yuh-jung) seek to resolve a host of marital and generational tensions. Not to be missed.
Them (Prime Video, 9 April)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) more or less established a fresh genre: the embedding of narratives of racial injustice in the traditions of the American horror movie. In similar spirit, Damon Lindelof addressed the battle with white supremacism through the lens of superhero mythology in HBO’s excellent Watchmen series (2019). Now Little Marvin’s ten-part series takes the Great Migration – and specifically the arrival in 1953 of the Emorys, a Black family from North Carolina, in an all-white Los Angeles neighbourhood – and adds the threat of the supernatural to the toxicity of racial prejudice. Peele has set the bar high, but this is worthy of your time.
Tupac Shakur: A Life In Ten Pictures (iPlayer, 10 April)
The latest instalment in this imaginative BBC Two series (which made a strong start last week with Freddie Mercury) deploys a simple formula to powerful effect. The late, great rapper was famously photogenic, and there is a luminously tragic quality to these images – a sense of foreboding and bleak destiny. The series will also feature Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali, John Lennon and Amy Winehouse.
Beautiful Things: A Memoir – Hunter Biden (Simon & Schuster)
So globally consuming and horribly compelling was the Trump saga that it is salutary to be reminded that we are now more than two months into Joe Biden’s presidency. And with every new administration – inevitably – comes a slew of family memoirs, of which Hunter Biden’s is the first. Though the writing is demotic at best, the book is undoubtedly a page-turner: not least because of the spirit of defiance with which it confronts the author’s experience as an addict, his controversial business dealings (now the subject of federal investigation) and his desire to set the record straight as early as he can in his father’s term of office. The book scarcely draws a line under the question of what Biden Jr was up to in China and Ukraine, but it is absorbing nonetheless. Like the president’s own, poignant memoir Promise Me, Dad (2017), Beautiful Things shows once again that the memory of Hunter’s elder brother Beau – who died of cancer in 2015 – provides the Biden family with its moral compass.
A Restless, Hungry Feeling: The Double Life of Bob Dylan Vol. 1: 1941-1966 – Clinton Heylin (Bodley Head)
Great musicians, like historic politicians, attract maximalist biographers. Most famously, the 85-year-old Robert Caro is still at work on the fifth volume of his life of Lyndon Johnson, while Fredrik Logevall’s brilliant 800-page first volume on JFK appeared last year – but only took us up to Kennedy’s decision to run for the presidency. There are counterparts in pop history: Mark Lewisohn’s first volume on the Beatles clocks in at 1,700 pages (in its “special edition”), and the next is not expected before 2023 at the earliest. Clinton Heylin has already written thirteen books on Bob Dylan and this 528-page door-stopper only takes us up to 1966. But the dividend of such obsessiveness is extraordinary detail – of the sort that comes only from years of work in archives and transcribing interviews. There is plenty to learn in this first volume about the origins of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, Dylan’s (at the time) heretical embrace of the electric guitar in 1965, and the influence of his formative years in Minnesota upon his subsequent creativity. Too much, even for fans? Don’t think twice, it’s alright.
Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis – Serhii Plokhy (Allen Lane)
Best known for his Baillie Gifford winning masterpiece, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, and a professor history at Harvard, Serhii Plokhy is well-placed to revisit the weeks in 1962 in which humanity came closest to a nuclear apocalypse. As Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s defense secretary, put it, this was no game of bluff: [“H]ad a US invasion been carried out, if the missiles had not been removed, there was a 99 per cent probability that nuclear war would have been initiated.” Plokhy’s familiarity with Russian and Ukrainian sources means that his account is comprehensive (in contrast to most histories of the crisis which are generally seen through the prism of the Kennedy administration). In backing down, Khruschev ensured his eventual downfall at the hands of his more hawkish comrades in the Kremlin. But – on the upside – civilisation was not destroyed.
W.L. – The Snuts
Building a reputation through a series of strong EPs since 2016, the indie four-piece from West Lothian (hence W.L.) demonstrates the virtue of patience with this confident, taut and unashamed celebration of guitar music at its best in 2021. The anthems, such as ‘Glasgow’ and ‘Coffee & Cigarettes’, plus funkier tracks like ‘Elephants’, are the oven-ready makings of a glorious summer soundtrack in mass venues – if they are able to reopen. An album to cherish and one that will make you itch to get back to live music.
Voices 2 – Max Richter (9 April)
Max Richter’s distinctive and haunting music is familiar to millions who have never heard of him, thanks to the many soundtracks he has written – notably for the HBO series, The Leftovers. In Voices (2020), the German-British composer took inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 – and he returns to the source material in this second volume. As Richter himself has remarked, surveying a world scarred by the pandemic and geopolitical tension, the document could scarcely be more important than it is today, 73 years after its adoption by the UN in Paris.
Iggy Pop Live at Sydney Opera House
Having written this week for the latest tranche of Slow Reviews (do check them all out) on the enduring magic of the Stooges’ Raw Power, I am seriously looking forward to Iggy Pop’s streamed gig from Down Under on 21 April at 8pm BST (book here). It’ll set you back a tenner, but that’s still a bargain when the act in question is an apparently ageless street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.
Huge thanks to the mighty Tom Goulding for curating this special playlist for Creative Sensemaker. Play it loud and often, as you step into spring.
Don’t forget to send your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now – take care of yourselves, and each other.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Getty Images, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, A24, Chi Modu