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When doing a critical analysis of a film, two different perspectives have to come into play. The first is what could be called the subjective perspective, which is dedicated to judging a new release entirely on its own merits. The second, naturally, is the objective perspective, which compares and contrasts how a new release explores themes and subject matter featured in previous works. In my reviews I make a personal habit of emphasizing the former while always keeping the latter in mind for context – but what can challenge that balance is when two similar movies come out in close proximity to one another.
The release of Bennett Lasseter’s The Ultimate Playlist Of Noise is a perfect case. Viewed in a vacuum, it’s an emotional albeit familiar coming of age story that has an interesting hook in that it centers on a music-loving protagonist’s journey coping with the news that they are losing their hearing. The “scheduling” issue is that the film is being released less than two months after Darius Marder’s Sound Of Metal – the remarkable drama starring Riz Ahmed that delves into the same arena with exponentially more power. The new Hulu movie is admittedly targeted toward a different, younger audience, and it does have its affecting, emotional moments, but anyone who watches both will instantly recognize how one is very much in the other’s shadow.
Bennett Lasseter’s feature directorial debut and based on an original screenplay by Mitchell Winkie, The Ultimate Playlist Of Noise’s aforementioned music-loving protagonist is Marcus (Keean Johnson) – a teen who loves music so much that he’s known around school for being the ideal person to hit up if in need of a perfect playlist (I’m hard pressed to believe that this is a kind of social transaction that happens in real life, but the movie sells it well enough). His melomania is driven by memories of his musician brother, who died in a fire trying to rescue him when he was younger, but that tragic episode from his childhood proves to just be a preview of the drama awaiting him in his late teens.
Marcus wakes up in a hospital after having a seizure at a rock club, and after tests are run it’s discovered that he has tumors in his brain. They need to be surgically removed, and a side effect from the operation will be that he loses his hearing. He’s initially despondent and suicidal from this news, but his energy returns when he is hit with inspiration. In the time before his surgery, he plans a cross-country trip that will allow him to capture the great sounds of the world, from the wind rushing past while driving 80mph, to lapping waves, to 100 soda cans being opened at the same time.
When Marcus’ parents (Ian Gomez, Carrie Louise Putrello) refuse his request, the teenager decides to sneak out of his room and go anyway – and it turns out that he doesn’t have to go on his excursion alone thanks to running into the performer who was on stage when he had his first seizure (or more accurately running into her with his car). It turns out that Wendy (Madeline Brewer) is hitchhiking to New York for what could be her big break, and when she learns of Marcus’ plan she decides to help him in his pursuit.
The Ultimate Playlist Of Noise doesn’t provide the sensory experience you want it to.
Not to harp on the contrast too much, but one of the most remarkable things about Sound Of Metal was its ability to create a particular sensory experience that leaves audiences reconsidering their perception of the world through their ears. You’d expect The Ultimate Playlist Of Noise to deliver something similar (if not just because of the title alone), but more often than not it feels like the film is more about the idea of the sounds being recorded rather than the presentation of it – which is a missed stylistic opportunity. For example, a failed attempt to aurally capture a stone skipping across a lake is interrupted by a frustrated Wendy just chucking a large rock into the water, and while the bit plays up Wendy’s attitude and an on-screen graphic editing Marcus’ check-list, it feels like there’s not enough appreciation for the special “glunk-pshhhh” that comes from such an action, perhaps with an added quiet scrape as the boulder hits the bottom.
It has an interesting story to tell, but The Ultimate Playlist Of Noise also hits the beats you expect.
Stylistic shortcomings aside, The Ultimate Playlist Of Noise does have an interesting story to tell, though it also won’t hit you with any massive surprises (and not just because it briefly starts in media res for absolutely no reason). The idea of losing one’s hearing and being cut off from one of the key ways in which we experience the world is terrifying, and Marcus’ method of rebelling against that fear is both beautiful and courageous. More than that, it’s fun to watch Marcus and Wendy bond on their journey together and collect what really are some wonderful noises.
Keean Johnson puts in a strong lead performance, and makes a good pair with Madeline Brewer.
Much of what makes that bond between the leads work are the performances by Keean Johnson and Madeline Brewer. It’s not the easiest material, as it vacillates between rom-com cute and devastatingly dramatic for both characters, and both actors do beautiful work in the moment. Johnson in particular, best known for supporting roles in Euphoria and Alita: Battle Angel, demonstrates talent as a leading man, and in the end does some great, realistic, emotional acting.
While perhaps not as original as it might have felt three months ago, The Ultimate Playlist Of Noise is what could be classified as an “ok” modern coming-of-age story – telling a meaningful story in a not phenomenally impactful way. Clocking in at just 100 minutes, it’s a fine choice if you’re looking for a new release to get your emotions going, but don’t expect a particularly memorable watch.