Metro Weekly

’32 Sounds’ Review: Auditory Wonders

32 Sounds' offers a fascinating, immersive exploration of sound and its effect on how we think, feel, create, and remember.

32 Sounds
32 Sounds

A film that demands to be seen with excellent audio, 32 Sounds (★★★★☆) aims to unlock the power sound wields over our ears, bodies, and minds. Director Sam Green actually suggests in the film that a pair of good headphones are the best way to experience not only the designated disparate sounds, but the vast world of music, noise, nature, and silence the movie explores with verve and technical prowess.

Inspired by the award-winning Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, the film also wields a sentimental streak suiting Green’s message that sound connects us to the world. It’s our first connection to the outside world from within the womb, he notes in voiceover, referencing a theory held by Oscar-winning sound designer Walter Murch, whose wife Aggie’s landmark recordings of womb sounds kick off the titular list.

But it’s on the subject of death, rather than birth, that the film finds several compelling examples of sounds that stir emotions, starting with the mating call of a bird now extinct. The film encourages viewers to close their eyes and really listen to the recording of the male Moho braccatus, the very last of his species, warbling his song into a rain-soaked Hawaiian evening, unaware his call will never reach a mate.

A curator at the British Library Sound Archive chooses that tragic Moho call, among the millions of items cataloged in the archive, as “the most sad recording you could ever have.” Notably, nearly all the scientists who appear in the film to elucidate the physics and biology of sound, or the engineering of sound recording and reproduction, also address the unfathomable ways that sound can make us feel things.

32 Sounds
32 Sounds

In one sound-warping scene, Princeton scientist Edgar Choueiri leads Green in a lighthearted demonstration of binaural and spatial audio, shaking a box of matches seemingly, by the sound of it, in circles all around the viewer.

It’s a nifty, gee-whiz moment, realized in the film courtesy of Mark Mangini’s precision sound design. Yet, when the movie returns to Choueiri, technological advances of the digital age are set aside, as the Lebanese immigrant listens to an analog cassette he recorded at the age of 11 back in Lebanon, talking to his future self.

“I hope you have made my dreams come true,” the boy says to the man. Choueiri is too moved to continue. Later, Green unearths his own box of cassettes, recordings of loved ones like his dad, and his brother, who took his own life.

In a few beautiful passages, 32 Sounds unfolds a touching story about another beloved friend of Green’s who passed, the late activist and revolutionary Nehanda Abiodun. Green, an Oscar nominee for the 2002 documentary The Weather Underground, got to know Abiodun well, shooting her for a film while she lived in exile in Cuba. On a return trip, he turns the camera on Abiodun as she listens to a mixtape he made for her of her favorite songs.

Seeing her laugh, dance, and revel in the memories evoked by McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” poses a journey unto itself. How one feels about that journey might depend on how one feels about Abiodun’s politics.

However, now that she’s gone, Green intones, when he hears that song, he thinks of that moment spent with a friend. Just as viewers of the film might, in turn, continue to relate the song to 32 Sounds, or to whatever other memory already lives embedded in their mind.

Sound never dies, Green proposes, echoing 19th-century English mathematician and philosopher Charles Babbage. Babbage theorized that, if sound is merely vibrations in the air, those vibrations don’t die, they just continue bouncing around the world, the sound growing ever fainter.

As 32 Sounds demonstrates again and again, the past, present, and even future can come together in a sound. Sometimes, hearing is believing.

32 Sounds screens with live narration by director Sam Green on Saturday, May 6, at noon and 3 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Admission is free, but registration is required. Click here to register.

32 Sounds will open in select theaters throughout the summer. For screening info, visit

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