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There is a small delight many viewers may share with Marcus, the main character of Hulu’s The Ultimate Playlist of Noise played by emerging actor Keean Johnson of Midway. This writer is one of them. Marcus’s narration brings up his enjoyment watching the facial expressions and body language of people hearing any array of sounds. Be it directly or voyeuristically, he’s astounded and inspired by the captivation seen among those listeners. He’s right. Try it yourself.
Watch someone stupefied by a guttural animal sound, close their eyes in reflection to a familiar song that comes on, or be smitten by the laugh of a baby. All sounds are uniquely special. The sensory reactions and emotional effects are special as well. We get these moments in life and we get them in movies too. The Ultimate Playlist of Noise harnesses that allurement in a very sentimental way.
If you don’t see enough of the beauty in both organized and jumbled sound, imagine if you couldn’t hear any of it anymore. That is the prospect being faced by high schooler Marcus Lund. After a diagnosis delivered by Dr. Lubinsky (Bonnie Hunt, a nice touch) he’s slated to have surgery to remove a brain tumor that is wrapped around his auditory nerve. The procedure will remove the internal anatomy for his sense of hearing. For the kid that is in love with all noise, this was crushing.
Before this diagnosis, Marcus was the resident melomanic among his social circles. The extraordinarily informative individual became the celebrated and successful mixtape maker with perfect curations for his peers and their usually specific needs. Often he would be seen wearing two sets of headphones in overkill, one with a musical selection and the other one piping in natural or ambient noise as if he was pairing wine with cheese. That headgear and the eardrum-rattling combinations were his solace tools in dealing with life as a teenager. Sound is most certainly an escape.
They were also a measure of coping with grief. Twelve years ago, Marcus and his parents Dominick (character actor Ian Gomez) and Alyssa (TV regular Rya Kihlstedt of Nashville) lost his older brother Alex in a fire. The circumstances of his Alex’s death are framed heroically by Marcus’s parents to the point where Alex is his unquestioned idol. Marcus adores the spectre of Alex’s old school tastes, cassettes, and tech he left behind.
After the tough diagnosis comes down, Marcus plans a master list, matching the title of the movie, of 50 sounds he wants to record and experience before he can no longer hear them. As he’s making his supreme list, a watcher of The Ultimate Playlist of Noise cannot help but mentally create their own and think about the pleasure it would bring to craft. Go on. You’re already doing it after reading that paragraph. What makes your audio bucket list?
Once Marcus learns that his brother recorded a demo tape with a band in New York City, his quest now becomes a road trip for that very personally important artifact. It’s a journey he won’t take alone after running into (literally and figuratively) the fetching aspiring singer Wendy, played by Madeline Brewer of The Handmaid’s Tale, who needs a ride and an escape of her own to the Big Apple. Armed with his trusty tape recorder and microphone, Marcus collects his acoustic trinkets with Madeline’s impressionable help.
This is where The Ultimate Playlist of Noise saunters with mirth more than mush. Johnson and Brewer carry on with pleasant chemistry and bright talent. Rightfully so, the soundscape is the treat. The movie might as well be an invisible love letter to foley artists, with kudos to foley artist Bogdan Zavarin, sound designer Russell Topal, and supervising sound editor Odin Benitez here in making this movie come alive to our ears. Freaky music supervisor Rob Lowry devised an engaging soundtrack complete with indie label darlings and original songs, including Brewer herself dropping “love at first sound” power on the mic with the ballad “Where I’m Going.” You’ll be grabbing your own double headphones to join this excursion.
Just when you think you can predict where The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is heading with romantic tendencies of teen love and road movie shenanigans, it rises into something else. Written by Mitchell Winkie and directed by Bennett Lasseter in their debut feature after successes in the short film medium, the movie is unshy with the hard feels that go beyond and conquer the cliches. Sure, Marcus crushes on Wendy, but nothing is immediate and nothing about “getting the girl” is a given. Yes, that precious demo tape will be found and will be heard, but there are larger and heavier circumstances surrounding it and its impact that are more painful than the prospect of losing one of your cardinal senses.
And when the silence does come for Marcus and us, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise goes back to that opening captivation of body language in its final act. Even when things cannot be heard, the shared delight is still there in a wonderful way. This little movie already celebrated Lesson #1 with ease. Going further with a more challenging accomplishment, its big heart proves that life without sound is still beautiful too.