THE LOUDEST sound I ever experienced came from the combined efforts of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham and John Paul Jones.
Following that 1975 Led Zeppelin concert at Philadelphia’s now-defunct Spectrum, I truly believed I would never hear normally again.
That’s what 130 decibels can do to you. It's an impressive rock achievement, considering the U.S. Army estimates that firing a 155mm Howitzer clocks in at 190 dB.
I hadn’t heard anything close to that “Whole Lot of Love” mondo-level sound, until I went to the local multiplex recently to see “Oppenheimer,” one of this summer’s blockbuster hits.
All I can say is bring ear plugs.
I DON'T EXPECT a nuclear explosion to sound like a pop-gun. It’s the rest of the film that peels paint off the walls. If you enjoy ear-splitting sound, this movie is for you.
There are recurring sequences of Robert Oppenheimer’s brain on overloaded, as apocalyptic images roar and rumble through the troubled scientist’s head. I get it. He is making a bomb that he fears could destroy civilization.
But while Cillian Murphy, a son of Ireland, gives a superb performance of the tortured American theoretical physicist, the sound that accompanies his psychological self-flagellation is loud enough to send all the cows of County Cork running for the paddocks.
Even more annoying, however, is the unrelenting melodramatic music that drowns out large swaths of dialogue. “Wait. What did he say?”
It appears the director, Christopher Nolan, does not believe two people can have a cinematic moment by just talking to each other. The “drama” must be constantly enhanced with deafening orchestral embellishment.
By the time the first of the film’s three hours winds down, you just want some peace and quiet! I've read that Nolan doesn’t do placid. He is, after all, the guy who made the equally ear-splitting films, “Dunkirk.” “Interstellar,” and “The Dark Knight.” And, frankly, he’s not the only one delivering glass-breaking levels of sound at the movies these days. It’s sort of like the sound engineers saying, “Here’s what we now can do with sound. So, allow us to blow out your eardrums.”
THE URGE TO "CRANK IT UP" goes back as far as the early days of high fidelity.
When I was a kid, my Uncle Sal was the first in the family to buy a stereo console. It was 1962 and this new technology was finally affordable for the average family.
The first night after the console was delivered everyone gathered around the RCA Victor. We didn’t start by listening to music. Instead, my uncle played a demonstration record, which electronics companies included with their consoles to highlight their stunning sound reproduction.
There we were, my parents, uncles, aunts and cousins, all gathered around a long sleek wooden cabinet cradling a record changer and radio, waiting to hear stereo for the first time.
So, my uncle pumped up the volume.
The first cut was an old-fashioned locomotive chugging on the tracks, at first faint in the left speaker, then louder and louder as it approached. Soon, it felt like the room was shaking as the train thundered by to the right speaker and trundled off into the distance.
Everyone was like … Whoa!
Next came the deafening roar of a jetliner taking off.
And then the laughter and screams of kids playing in a schoolyard.
It was exciting and, yes, it was loud. Not 2023 loud, but a more bearable 1962 loud.
I don’t think we need to retreat 60 years back in sound technology. But it would be nice to have more hearing-friendly, less painful acoustics at the movies.
I like the sound of that.