In Sam Green’s immersive feature documentary,“32 Sounds”, there are moments of discovery, learning, joy, wonder and connection that very few entertainment experiences can rival. I remember being similarly transported by Louie Schwartzberg’s 2019 film, “Fantastic Fungi” which was an inspiration for the website on which you are reading this review.
Here, Green (“the Weather Underground”, “A Thousand Nights”) and his musical collaborator JD Samson (underground bands LeTigre and MEN), describe the miracle and importance of our first sense, sound. The notion that sound waves are transported through the air into a receptacle adjacent to the brains of living creatures, converted by hair follicles, minute bones and a viscous canal into electromagnetic signals that are then decoded into complex meaning by the brain, is nothing short of miraculous.
When you factor in the idea that embryos experience sound before they use any of their other senses, you begin to understand the importance of why our first sense has such a profound effect on life on earth as we know it. The sound engineer Randy Thom (“Apocalypse Now,” “Return of the Jedi,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Ratatouille”) is quoted in the film saying, “Sound is a second class citizen in our consciousness, but it has a secret weapon, stealth, it sneaks into the side door of our brain, often completely unnoticed, it works on us as if by magic.”
Thom’s description is similar to the experience of watching “32 Sounds”. It is a full immersion for your senses. An immersive experience has been defined as giving people the ability to do or feel what they may not have been able to, or to do or feel things in a unique way. Why is music such a powerful force in the universe? How do elephants communicate with each other over distances of one thousand miles by simply touching their feet to the ground? Can you actually hear better if you close your eyes?
Charles Babbage, the mathematician, philosopher and inventor widely credited with the invention of the first digital computer in the 1800’s said, “The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.” The idea is that once sound waves are made they remain in our universe forever and it is only our capacity to detect their volume and frequency that creates meaning. “32 Sounds” examines the history of capturing sound and the corresponding evolution of humans right alongside it.
The filmmakers use the narrative frame of 32 distinct sounds to tell their story. Green, the director, equates making films as an act of “marveling at people and the world.” In using this rich set of sound samples he and his collaborators do exactly that. The composer, Annea Lockwood, appears working on various projects to demonstrate that, as she says, “Sound is an energy channel from one phenomenon to another.”
The rocket scientist, Edgar Choueiri, finds a sound recording that he made when he was 11 years old in Lebanon that was to be saved and not listened to until he reached 30. We watch Choueiri stumble upon it much later in his life and join in his wonder of the emotional discoveries. There is an eclectic dance montage cut to the Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder classic “I Feel Love” that is nothing short of dancing on air.
At another point in the film we watch Foley Artist Joanna Fang re-create sounds for film which illustrates the role of the brain at work in mind expanding ways. The artist Christine Sun Kim explores what sound means for those who do not hear in conventional ways. The film both states and proves that, “Art can elevate a truth beyond what is feasibly there.”
Special mention to sound editor Mark Mangini (“ Dune”, “Mad Max Fury Road”) whose sound mix and design are a special character itself. The filmmakers have created several different ways to experience “32 Sounds.” There is a theatrical version for standard studio speakers and one for theatrical headphones in cinemas that have them. There is a live touring version, where Green narrates and Samson plays music to an audience which has access to binaural headphones. It should be noted that Green possesses an extraordinarily soothing speaking voice, reminiscent of PBS’s artist, Bob Ross. Lastly, a streaming version will soon be available for speakers or headphones at home.
Green says that it was his intention to create a film that focused on the experience of listening closely and feeling deeply. By doing so he wanted to move the audience sonically in a way that most films work visually. In “32 Sounds,” he has succeeded in achieving those intentions and much more.
For additional information on the film, visit the website https://32sounds.com/