Especially for those who are passionate about sound, I have made a selection of iconic films from different years, where the main roles were given to sound.
In this review, I look at 10 feature films and documentaries that will broaden understanding of sound design, field recording, the history of electronic music, the profession of sound engineering, and aural poetics.
Share in the comments your impressions and other films about sound not included here.
- 1. Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, 2019 (Midge Costin)
- 2. Sound of Metal, 2019 (Darius Marder)
- 3. Being Hear, 2017 (Matt Mikkelsen, Palmer Morse)
- 4. Sisters with transistors, 2020 (Lisa Rovner)
- 5. C'mon C'mon, 2021 (Mike Mills)
- 6. Lisbon Story, 1994 (Wim Wenders)
- 7. Notes on Blindness, 2017 (Peter Middleton, James Spinney)
- 8. The Sound of Silence, 2019 (Michael Tyburski)
- 9. Memoria, 2021 (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
- 10. Sonic Magic. The Wonder and Science of Sound, 2015 (Jerry Thompson)
1. Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, 2019 (Midge Costin)
"Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound" is a compelling documentary story that tells the emergence, evolution, and impact of sound design in movies. In the motion picture, we learn where it all began and how sound is created in Hollywood.
Where was the voice of Chewbacca from "Star Wars" found and how was written the legendary roar of "King Kong" in 1933? Why was Barbra Streisand willing to pay an extra million dollars for stereo sound in "A Star Is Born" and how it changed the movie sound recording format forever?
Through interviews with living legends such as Steven Spielberg, Sofia Coppola, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, pioneering sound designers Walter March, Ben Burtt, and other influential masters, the multifaceted history of sound production and its incredible importance in film is methodically revealed.
2. Sound of Metal, 2019 (Darius Marder)
How do you learn to be deaf if you are a musician? The Sound of Metal took two Oscars at once in 2021 as the movie with the best sound design and editing.
The story tells about a drummer who is actively touring with his girlfriend-singer in America on his trailer. Suddenly the hero begins to lose his hearing and in a matter of days becomes completely deaf. His whole life changes dramatically.
Why does the deaf society, in which the drummer has to live, does not consider the lack of hearing an ailment? How does the hero’s longing to regain sound turn into acceptance of complete silence? The movie will definitely appeal to a wide audience, especially music lovers and musicians.
3. Being Hear, 2017 (Matt Mikkelsen, Palmer Morse)
Fans of poetic contemplation of sound and field recording will appreciate this short documentary about acoustic ecologist Gordon Hampton.
The protagonist explores multiple soundscapes and emphasizes listening, a vanishing skill in anthropogenic noise.
In Being Heard, the acoustician shares his philosophical approach about auditory attention to place and his thoughts on how silence can open our eyes to the bigger picture of the world.
According to Gordon: without silence, we cannot think originally or be ourselves. Silence is the brain center of the soul.
4. Sisters with transistors, 2020 (Lisa Rovner)
A fascinating account of female electronic music pioneers, bursting with archival footage, interviews, fantastic audio equipment of the past, and an avant-garde approach to sound creation.
A documentary about unsung heroines reveals a chronology of the development of music culture from the perspective of technology.
The stories of ten women inspired by a thirst for exploration and the creation of radical new sounds, show step by step how electronics freed music from academic shackles and allowed women to carry out sound experiments independent of "authoritative male" judgments.
5. C’mon C’mon, 2021 (Mike Mills)
The film with the legendary Joaquin Phoenix in black-and-white aesthetics is not so much focused on sound as on the ability to hear oneself and listen to the thoughts of others.
The picture introduces us to the routine of a radio journalist who is urgently forced to combine caring for his nephew with work traveling around the country. The story is filled with conversation, reflection, a leisurely pace, and questions about the future and present to hundreds of children.
Monochrome visuals throughout the film help focus on the dialogues, while the main character’s walks with a recorder, microphone, and monitors immerse the viewer as much as possible in the soundscapes of the different locations.
6. Lisbon Story, 1994 (Wim Wenders)
“The Lisbon Story” is perhaps the most visual feature film about what a sound engineer actually does. There are walks around the city in order to collect field recordings, and the creation of sound effects with household instruments from the hero’s bag, and listening to the found audio diary of a mysteriously disappeared friend.
From the first frames, the viewer goes on a sound journey through old Europe. The story, directed by the brilliant Wim Wenders, shows how the main character stays in the house of a film director who suddenly disappeared.
Having begun the search for his missing friend, Winter is inspired to create a sound for the film found in the apartment. Enchanted by the port city, the foreigner makes the viewer fall in love with images of old Lisbon and its sounds, and inadvertently introduces us to the unusual intricacies of his profession.
7. Notes on Blindness, 2017 (Peter Middleton, James Spinney)
The screen adaptation of Notes on Blindness is a melancholy British film based on the audio diaries of a real person. The main character turns out to be the theology professor and writer John Hull, who is losing his sight. After an eye operation, the doctors give a disappointing prognosis — they cannot save his sight.
Rapidly losing visual connection with the familiar world, the professor begins to study objects by touch and chooses significant books to save their audio versions, recorded on cassettes.
In parallel, John keeps his audio diary with the help of a cassette recorder. Gradually his whole life turns into sound. The hero finally goes blind just a few days before the birth of his first son. At the heart of the picture about the difficult path of a man who lost his sight, is the voice of the real John Hull, the main roles are performed by actors.
8. The Sound of Silence, 2019 (Michael Tyburski)
In the center of the plot of the feature film is a man who adjusts the ideal sound in New York apartments. Before us is a genius with absolute pitch, able to determine the tone of any object, house, or even area in the city of New York.
In a way that is inexplicable to most people, the "adjuster" finds and eliminates sound disturbances in the homes of his clients, thus solving their problems with insomnia, misunderstandings in relationships, depression, and anxiety.
Parallel to the work of "adjusting" houses, the hero explores the city and writes a scientific paper on the effect of sound background on people. Faced with the thirst for easy profits of the corporation on his discoveries, the formerly self-confident adjuster is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Only "The Sound of Silence" can save the situation.
9. Memoria, 2021 (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
A film with a predominantly auditory context focuses the viewer’s attention on the search for a strange, disturbing, and at the same time mesmerizing sound that fascinates the protagonist. Appearing out of nowhere, like a repetitive drumbeat, it deprives Jessica, who has come to Colombia to take care of her sister, of sleep.
Throughout the film, the heroine moves through the streets and neighborhoods of Bogotá, trying to discover the origin of the unusual sound. The smooth narrative of the movie is built on a surprising balance between long scenes of silence and sounds of different origins.
The director of the movie said in an interview about the picture that "Memory" is a kind of musical work, where the focus on silence has the same intensity as the focus on sound.
10. Sonic Magic. The Wonder and Science of Sound, 2015 (Jerry Thompson)
A Canadian documentary that reveals the secret and scientifically proven capabilities of sound to solve a variety of humanity’s pains. The plot of Sonic Magic balances the magical properties of sound, serious medical work, and scientists' research.
The movie introduces the viewer to the field of acoustic ecology in a basic way and reveals different sides of sound’s potential. It raises the topics of how noise levels affect food taste, shows real-life examples of blind animals and people who "see" with the help of sounds, and considers the treatment of serious illnesses with sound signals.
In this review, I’ve considered the top 10 most interesting movies about sound I’ve seen and listened to in recent years. I intentionally did not include documentaries about prominent musicians and famous creators of concrete music.
I’m interested to know your favorite films about sound not included in the review and your impressions about what you’ve seen.
Author Oksana Rudko