“What if Sound of Metal were given the YA treatment?” is not a question I ever thought I would consider, but here we are! The Hulu Original film The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is that movie, and if you need a version of Sound of Metal that is twee and predictable but still has some heartfelt sincerity to it, here you go! I promise you won’t cry out all the moisture in your body after watching this one!
In Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed played a metal drummer who abruptly loses his hearing and is forced to reassess who he is now that he is deaf. In Ultimate Playlist, high schooler Marcus (Keean Johnson), one of those audiophile teens with tons of cassette tapes and CDs who only seems to exist in movies really aimed at millennials like me, discovers that he has a brain tumor, and that the surgery to remove it will result in deafness. It’s devastating news for Marcus, whose entire personality is wrapped up in music. (Yes, again … like Ahmed’s Ruben.) After his older brother Alex died when rescuing Marcus from a house fire, Marcus dealt with his grief by throwing himself into the music Alex listened to, the bands he liked, and the audio recording equipment he carried around everywhere. Marcus’s grades aren’t great, but at school, he’s the mixtape guy, putting together musical compilations for classmates going on third dates, for a wrestler who is looking to go on a “suburban acid trip,” for one of his teachers who is interested in catching the eye of one of his other teachers. It’s the kind of music you would expect from a movie like this (Pavement, Brian Eno, Belle and Sebastian, that kind of indie and classic rock thing), but Marcus, to his credit, isn’t pushy or precious about his choices. He’s not about to Rob Gordon you with his interests, if you catch my meaning.
But when Marcus has a seizure, learns about the tumor, and then learns that the surgery to remove it will result in his deafness, he latches onto an idea: What if he made an ultimate playlist of noise [insert Leo pointing at the screen gif here, for when the people in the movie say the name of the movie!], or a collection of all the sounds he’ll miss hearing for the rest of his life, to listen to before he can never hear again? Fireworks popping. Cows mooing. The crack of a bat hitting a home run. And, most importantly, the sound of his brother Alex’s voice, once Marcus learns that Alex and his band recorded a demo that still lives in a studio in New York City. Ignoring his parents’ concerns, Marcus runs away on a roadtrip to NYC to collect all those sounds in the last month before his surgery, to listen to Alex’s demo, and to, of course, grow along the way.
I’m being a little sarcastic here, but I don’t mean to be particularly meanspirited. Sure, I didn’t love that The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is still doing, in our year of 2021, the manic pixie dreamgirl thing with Marcus’s love interest, struggling musician Wendy (Madeline Brewer). And also sure, there are cutesy production design choices from director Bennett Lasseter (like Marcus’s handwriting, in bright yellow, showing up onscreen to mark off items on the sound playlist checklist, or Marcus’s own fourth-wall-breaking narration) that have been done in a million different YA movies, and that Ultimate Playlist of Noise doesn’t make unique for itself. But Johnson is a solid young actor who has become noticeably better after playing Robert Rodriguez’s mini-me in Alita: Battle Angel (if you didn’t see Johnson’s A24 movie Low Tide, you should, and We Summon the Darkness is fun, too), and writer Mitchell Winkie smartly makes Marcus a bit of a square.
He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t really date. He’s probably a virgin. He goes to church with his mother on Friday nights. He has a 10 p.m. curfew. Johnson plays Marcus as a kid finally growing into himself who thinks that the loss of his hearing will wipe out all future potential for a more exciting life, but the film doesn’t turn his cross-country journey into some last hurrah of booze and sex. Ultimate Playlist sidesteps that prospect, and the idea that Wendy would save Marcus, by focusing on what Marcus wants, and by making his fear and anger primary, and by building in a plot twist that I sincerely did not see coming and that gave Marcus’s journey additional heft. And although the film doesn’t pull off what Sound of Metal did in showing the vibrant community and full lives lived by deaf people, it also doesn’t become a fully ableist fantasy in which one type of personhood is shown as being superior to another.
“I don’t care about the rest of my life, Mom,” is what Marcus spits to his mother when she turns down the idea of his road trip, but of course that sentiment doesn’t hold in The Ultimate Playlist of Noise, which saves itself from being overbearingly cutesy and ends up more in the realm of treacly. Pair it with The Broken Hearts Gallery for a real “Aw, this is mostly silly and super unrealistic, but isn’t everyone adorable?” double header.
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is streaming on Hulu as of January 15, 2021.
Image sources (in order of posting): Hulu, Hulu