By Richie Angel
“How is music rude but Tinder is okay?”
“Because Tinder is something we can all do as a family.”
Thirty-five years ago, Marlee Matlin won the Academy Award for Best Actress, becoming the first deaf performer to take home an acting Oscar. Co-starring as Matlin’s husband in 2021’s CODA, Troy Kotsur recently became the second. To punctuate the historic night, this remake of the 2014 French-language film also earned Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.
CODA, as the acronym implies, follows a Child of Deaf Adults named Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of a fishing family in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Ruby’s singing voice could carry her away from home, but the family struggles enough to keep their business afloat without the thought of losing their interpreter – much less to a love of music they don’t understand.
Appropriate to its subject matter, CODA uses sound as both a character and a lens, but never too blatantly. Like 2019’s Sound of Metal, the movie opens with a rich tapestry of audio stimuli, forcing us to appreciate a world with sound. This becomes so much the more effective when we are asked to appreciate a world without it, watching Ruby’s father discover that his daughter truly does have a beautiful voice. The screenplay itself is consistently subtle. Ruby experiences stage fright when singing “Happy Birthday” in choir practice, and it might be the first time she has ever sung the tune; Ruby was mocked as a child for speaking like a deaf person, and her music teacher is a Mexican immigrant with an accent. And when Ruby’s teacher tells her broadly, “I have a whole life that has nothing to do with you,” the production design does most of the talking. But the movie doesn’t condescend to hammering home these parallels.
Above all else, communication comes directly through the concept of music. Ruby’s singing partner asks if her parents “even get what music is,” but the movie challenges whether anyone does. To Miles, music is conformity; to Ruby’s parents, it’s rebellion (“If I was blind, would you want to paint?”); from consecutive sequences of Leo and Gertie, Miles and Ruby, and Ruby’s parents, music is intimacy; to Mr. V., music is expression; and to Ruby, “It’s everything.”
Finally, “coda” is obviously not only an acronym but a musical term, both as a passage leading to the end of a piece and the place you go when you skip ahead. In every sense, the film is about codas; first, a Child of Deaf Adults; second, Ruby’s final movement from Child of Deaf Adults into adulthood supported by deaf family; and third, Ruby’s eagerness to skip the repetitive measures and get to the more dynamic portions of life.
In a movie filled with parallel plots of characters finding a voice, CODA lets the music speak for itself, teaching listeners that they “really don’t know life” unless they learn to love all of its senses. And that’s why every musician should watch CODA.