High school senior Marcus (Keean Johnson) isn’t trying to be rude but yes he is wearing two different sets of headphones because maybe he wants to listen to Radiohead and a gentle field breeze at the same time. He’s that guy, a total audiophile, most of his music taste inherited from his big brother who died saving him from a house fire. He’s teased about the burn marks on his back but Marcus is proud to wear such visible proof of love. He’s a little less enthusiastic about the toll these events have taken on his mother, who is the living, breathing embodiment of “overprotective.” He takes off his double head phones to hear some live music, but mom says he’s got to be home by 10, and he fully intends to comply. Except the opening act is transformative in many ways; Wendy (Madeline Brewer) is beautiful, her voice like gold to him, and when her set is finished, Marcus makes to follow her but gets elbowed in the head and falls to the floor in the throes of a seizure.
At the hospital they tell him he has brain tumors that need to be removed as soon as possible. Just one problem – well, aside from the obvious: this brain surgery is going to leave him deaf. With only a month to hear all there is to be heard, he embarks on a road trip toward New York City, completing a bucket list of all the best noises, and recording them all on his ultimate playlist of noise. Which noises would you choose? And more importantly, at least to a red-blooded teenage boy, who would you choose to accompany you on this quest? It’s a no-brainer for Marcus, particularly because she doesn’t exactly give him a choice. He and Wendy take off in his mom’s minivan without a plan or permission, determined to record everything worth hearing.
It sounds like a fairly typical young adult film, but Keean Johnson finds layers to his character, and I think most audiences who bother to will find layers to the film as well. Marcus’s trip is an attempt to find some peace with a looming loss, but he’s dealt with loss before, and perhaps he knows grieving, and coping, better than most. The script remembers to touch base with Marcus’ whole life – his friends, his family, the brother he never stops thinking about – but in his pursuit to hear all the sounds, he brings along a brand new person, the last new voice he will ever know. Of course there’s a certain melancholia to this act of goodbye, but the film is also a celebration of sound. Kudos to the guys in the sound department for their dedication to detail; even noise that doesn’t appear on Marcus’s list is paid special attention to.
The first half of The Ultimate Playlist of Noise played in a familiar way, much like that dying teen trope that movies like this just can’t stay away from – and yet this one has. Despite Marcus’s struggle to cope, losing his hearing isn’t a death sentence, it’s just the start to a new way of living, and yes, the end to the old way. But Marcus’s road trip isn’t just a recording session, it’s also a reminder that there are still plenty of beautiful things to see and think and feel, and that life will go on and be worth living and indeed be very good, hearing or no.