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Sound of Noise

Flashback: In 2005, I had just started my freshman year at Pacific University. In the process, I decided to temporarily give up my hobby as a percussionist, after playing through six years of music classes, including four years in drumline and more than three summers in band camp. Roughly half a year later, I discovered this brilliant short film. I then proceeded to watch the video at least a dozen times before sharing it with everyone in my dorm.

Cut to the present. Since graduating from Pacific roughly three years ago, I’ve been a prominent member of a local community drumline. Roughly a month ago, I discovered this trailer for a Swedish film called Sound of Noise. I then proceeded to watch the trailer at least a dozen times before sharing it with everyone in my drumline.

After doing some digging, I found that both videos were made by the exact same people. Yes, that band — which I’ve only seen identified as “Six Drummers” — apparently made the short film as a test run for their feature-length movie. There was almost a decade between the making of the two videos, probably because of the sheer complexity involved. Of course, I’m sure it didn’t help that this was the feature debut of directors Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson, after the pair had made a handful of short films together.

Fortunately, the trailer for Sound of Noise came with the announcement that two years after its release overseas, the movie had finally been picked up for American distribution. And when word reached my ears that the film had come to Portland, it shot to the top of my “to watch” list in record time.

Let’s start the review by meeting our drummers. First and foremost is Sanna Persson, who got expelled from a prestigious music academy for acts of vandalism. She’s the mastermind and de facto leader of our crew. Her partner in crime is Magnus Borjeson, a very skilled drummer with an intense hatred for cops. It’s he who composes “Music for One City and Six Drummers,” a demented hybrid of serial law-breaking, performance art, and percussive music played with items all over the city. But since the symphony explicitly calls for six drummers, Sanna and Magnus set out to recruit the greatest like-minded percussionists they can find.

The first one to join is Johannes Bjork, whose expressive and ingenious use of cymbals and drums gives new meaning to the phrase “beat poet.” Next is Marcus Boij, who’s known for experimenting with electric drums, personal safety be damned. The last to join are Fredrik “Myran” Myhr and Anders Vestergard, both of whom bring a colossal amount of thinly-veiled rage and a never-ending disgust for authority.

So basically, what we have are six irate maniacs with great artistic ambition and a steadfast refusal to take orders from anyone. If you think this is an unfair depiction of drummers, then you clearly don’t know very many of them.

Something else to understand about drummers is that we will play music on absolutely anything. Give a percussionist two drumsticks — or two of anything that look remotely like drumsticks — and it’ll be hours until you can hear yourself think again. As such, it should come as no surprise that the cast’s unique brand of percussion plays a part in just about every scene. Even when the drummers are being chased by police, they’re still pounding a beat on everything in sight. And lest I forget, no meeting of drummers would be complete without a drum-off. I won’t spoil just how off-the-wall that scene is, except to say that we walk in at the tail-end of a four-way drum battle that’s been going on for three continuous hours prior.

Still, the musical centerpiece of this film is unquestionably “Music for One City and Six Drummers.” The symphony is divided into four movements, all of them taking place at different points in the city and all of them performed in the same day. They are as follows:

  1. “Doctor Doctor Give Me Gas (In My Ass)” — This one is set in a hospital operating room. In addition to all the surgical instruments and tools laying around, the Six Drummers also utilize the unconscious body of a famous TV personality who’s been admitted for hemorrhoid surgery. The result is a weird kind of pseudo-techno dance beat.
  2. “Money 4 U Honey” — This is the fake bank heist that opened the trailer. There are a few hints of electronica and it’s definitely a dance beat, but the song has a much more primal, “street drummer” sort of sound.
  3. “Fuck the Music (Kill! Kill!)” — This one is played just outside a symphony hall, to interrupt a recital of Haydn. One of the drummers takes a couple of large hammers to a statue outside while the others play with a jackhammer, a steamroller, a backhoe, and two bulldozers. This extremely loud and aggressive song may not be the climax of the film, but it’s definitely the climax of the symphony.
  4. “Electric Love” — The drummers hook themselves to some power lines and play them like mammoth violin strings. It sounds kinda like one of the Blue Man Group’s “piano smashers” (a piano stripped to nothing more than its sound board, played by hitting it with a giant mallet).
  5. There’s an encore, which literally uses the entire city as an instrument in a way so creative and spellbinding that I don’t dare spoil it here.

All of these songs are obviously very different, but they all serve a creative purpose. Easily the most important is that all of these songs are done with items that we take for granted as part of everyday life. No one ever thinks to find new uses for them, and any sounds they make are just white noise that we’ve become accustomed to blocking out. But where we hear noise, the Six Drummers hear music that’s far more fascinating than anything heard on the radio.

What’s more, each song is its own artistic statement. “Money 4 U Honey” is obviously a derisive mockery of greed, obsession with money, etc. “Doctor Doctor” probably started out as a statement of how much power and trust we give to doctors (who else would you trust to knock you unconscious, after all?). But the choice to make a famous TV personality into their mark adds a neat “anti-celebrity worship” layer to it. “Fuck the Music” is a clear rejection of such classical music that the Six Drummers find stuffy and boring, and “Electric Love” is likely a statement regarding our over-reliance on electricity. As for the encore… well, read the paragraph before this one.

And lest we forget, there’s nothing overly malicious in what the Six Drummers are doing. They have absolutely no intention of hurting anyone, and any property damage is done for the sole purpose of making their statement. That doesn’t make them legally or morally in the right, but at least it makes them easier to watch.

Obviously, there’s a lot of cheating going on with the recording of this music. After all, one of the songs contains a shredding machine that’s every bit as audible as fingers being scraped across a keyboard, ostensibly without any assistance from microphones. Naturally, this is going to take some suspension of disbelief, though it just goes to show that the sound design of this movie is phenomenal.

Getting back to the drummers themselves, it’s worth noting that they were all named after the drummers playing them. Normally, I’d chalk this up to lack of creativity and abundance of ego, but not here. In this film, the names of the drummers are really beside the point. The names are totally irrelevant because as far as the film is concerned, these drummers are only relevant as forces of nature. They are meant to represent defiance against the drudgery of everyday life under harsh and unyielding authority figures, nothing more and nothing less.

As such, the Six Drummers turn out to be very static characters who are pretty much devoid of any character development. Luckily, as with any crime movie, this one has a detective. And he’s more or less our protagonist.

At the start of the movie, we learn that Amadeus Warnebring (Bengt Nilsson) was born into a family of very prominent musicians. Not only was his mother a concert pianist, but his dad and grandfather were both highly-renowned composers. The current star of the family is Amadeus’ little brother, Oscar (Sven Ahlstrom), who composed his first symphony at age twelve. Even Amadeus’ adorable little niece is a world-class pianist and she can’t be a day older than ten.

But Amadeus? He was born tone-deaf. Can’t play or sing a note. So naturally, he has to spend his entire life overshadowed and set apart from the rest of his family. This is especially painful, considering that Oscar has just been hired to conduct the enormous Haydn recital mentioned earlier. In fact, Amadeus has spent so much of his life in a jealous rage that he’s come to hate music completely. All of it. The one thing he yearns for above all else is a world of silence.

Naturally, a huge part of the movie focuses not only on Amadeus tracking down the Six Drummers, but also on the peace he makes with the noise and music of the world around him. Unfortunately, this is where the movie’s flaws start to show themselves.

For example, a huge plot point is that Amadeus can’t hear anything that the Six Drummers have played on. Remember the TV star who was the centerpiece of “Doctor Doctor?” Yeah, Amadeus can’t hear a word out of the guy’s mouth. Why? I have no idea. I imagine this was supposed to be an extension of the “tone-deaf detective” plot point, but it was still executed very poorly. I could say the same for his romance subplot, which felt very half-baked.

That said, any failings in terms of story are ultimately moot. The heart and core of this film is the “Music for One City and Six Drummers” symphony, which contains an amazing level of creativity and artistic merit that’s seen throughout the entire film. In this case, the style is the substance.

Oh, and it’s worth pointing out that yes, this is a foreign film and there are subtitles. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, get real. When’s the last time you needed subtitles to understand a drum performance?

Sound of Noise is an amazing film that was clearly made by musicians for musicians. It’s a very funny movie brimming over with creativity and effort, wrapped in a lot of great music unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. There are plenty of story failings, and I suspect that they might get on my nerves with repeat viewings, but I can’t wait to see it again to find out.

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