“I don't know if I could live without the crunch of a pickle,” Madeline Brewer says. The actress is talking through the food sounds she’d miss if she suddenly lost her sense of hearing, a threat that looms over her character’s companion in the new Hulu film, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise, out Friday (January 15). As Wendy, a singer-songwriter grappling with her chosen career’s diminishing returns, she finds a kindred wanderer in Marcus, a high-school student with a life-saving operation scheduled to remove tumors in his brain.
An unfortunate complication, though, is that the surgery will render the music-obsessed, playlist-making Marcus, played by Euphoria’s Keean Johnson, completely deaf. No more doubling up on headphones for both music and ambiance. “What if you want to listen to Neil Young while roasting marshmallows in the Smoky Mountains?” Marcus asks early on. No more jaunts to see the excellently named (fictional) band Sharkitecture. And no more chances to hear his late brother’s own songs captured before he died.
“I started out as a dancer before I even knew that you could act, and so obviously my hearing is one of my most important senses to me,” Johnson tells MTV News on a Zoom call with Brewer. “I don't know if I'm the type of actor that likes to think about me personally, but just the thought of losing something that is so powerful is pretty traumatic to think about.”
Realizing the clock is ticking, Marcus sets out on a road trip across the United States with his brother’s tape recorder and a plan. He’ll record all his favorite sounds — roaring thunderstorms, dozens of soda cans cracking open simultaneously, knocking bowling pins — and compile the titular playlist as a farewell to his operational ears. That’s when Wendy, likewise on the run, quite literally crashes into his life. Before long, she helps him capture the sounds he’ll miss, even as she navigates her own path and personal reasons for wanting to escape her life.
“She is, for a brief time, Marcus's manic pixie dream girl,” Brewer admits. “But you see that fall apart when you realize that's not real. So, that element was really cool, actually, to get to have my Natalie Portman in Garden State moments, but then to ground it a little bit. She teaches him a really important lesson that life is tough, and you have to be honest, and you have to be real, and you have to roll with the punches.”
Part of what draws Marcus to Wendy is her onstage aura, seen early in the film as she performs the yearning “Something to Believe In,” one of two original tunes penned by Wet’s Kelly Zutrau and sung by Brewer. In a pivotal scene, Marcus watches Wendy, transfixed, and wonders about the possibility of “love at first sound.” Then, he drops to the floor amid a seizure, revealing the severity of his condition. Before that, Wendy captivates him with her sound, something Brewer had to prepare for: “I’m not someone who gets onstage by myself with my guitar and just lets it rip,” she says. “That is so terrifying to me. I was very frightened. Also, I don't play the guitar. It was just all really daunting for me, but it looks beautiful.”
Daunting, too, is the question of what sounds each actor would place on their own hypothetical Ultimate Playlists of Noise. So before we get to Brewer’s pickle and the ambient and environmental sounds they’d miss if they lost their hearing, an easier ask: What’s the essential music they wouldn’t be able to live without?
Brewer mentions her choices quickly: Alopecia by experimental rap group Why? and, of course, SZA’s Ctrl. She also evokes a songwriting icon that Wendy would likely agree with. “I honest to god cannot live without Joni Mitchell,” she says. “I can't get through an emotional experience without Joni Mitchell's words in my life.” Johnson’s got his ears on the Fugees’s seminal 1997 hip-hop album The Score as well as anything from “very, very old classical to the new wave of hip hop.”
And then there’s the more abstract stuff.
“I have caller ID,” Brewer says, “and every time my mom calls me and leaves me a voicemail, she says, ‘Hey Mad, it's mom.’ [I’m like,] I've known your voice since I was in the womb. I know who you are. I have a couple of those and some happy-birthday ones from friends and loved ones I would miss hearing.”
Johnson’s sentimental sound choice is also related to his family, though it’s less about a particular message of love than an impressionistic representation of it. “We've got some land up in Colorado Springs, since I was about 5 or 6 years old,” he says, on which they built a small cabin. “There's no insulation or anything like that. It's at the top of this mountain, and when these huge storms come through, the wind is so loud that it shakes the house and you hear this really, really loud, high-pitched wind sound. Those nostalgic sounds, where the second I go back and I hear that again, it just gives me the memories from all those different years.”
As the pair talk about the film, just as Marcus journeys to create “a going-away party for my ears, with all my favorite sounds invited,” Brewer's reminded of the extraordinary moment we're still living in due to COVID-19 safety concerns, away from the soothing, ambient sonic backdrops of people living their lives that we used to take for granted. “I miss the sound of walking into a music venue or a bar where live music is playing. Just the buzz, and the music, and the people, and the conversation,” she says, setting a familiar scene. “Ordering drinks at the bar, and she's crying about someone, and it's just chaotic and beautiful, and everybody's living different lives simultaneously in this tiny sweaty space, and there's music, and there's creation, and people are falling in love, and people are falling out of love. And I love it. I miss the world.”
Before time's up, there's a reminder of that world. Johnson's cat Shabby barges into his room as he talks, rolling a clattering ball around to briefly interrupt the call and cause some smiles and quick laughs. One more ambient sound to miss when it's gone.