Arts·Sounds Like Summer

The true story of why my defining summer sound is...Keanu Reeves's voice (seriously)

For Nourhan Hesham, there's no sound more soothing — and hearing it instantly transports her back to the summer she watched Point Break over and over.

Hearing it instantly transports Nourhan Hesham back to the summer she watched Point Break over and over

(CBC Arts)

The last hot, hazy days of August warrant a look back — a look at what made summer what it is, or maybe what it once was and what it could have been. For our essay series Sounds Like Summer, we asked writers to reminisce about specific moments, reflect on feelings about the season's immense pull over us and conjure up the sounds associated — musical and otherwise. Summer's nearly over, but the reverberation of a particular mood remains.​

Henry James once said that the most beautiful words in the English language are "summer afternoon." I say they're "Point Break."

Like all seasons, summer is defined by its smells and sounds: the pungent aroma of chlorine, the latest Drake song, the shrill mating call of cicadas. For me, summer is defined by the voice of Keanu Reeves.

Ah yes, the beloved Canadian actor, motorcycle aficionado and impenetrable monk contemplating the meaning of the world with a sandwich. We've all seen and felt a Keanu Reeves film. I first saw him in Kathryn Bigelow's cult-classic Point Break, in what can only be described as a depressing summer marred with the anxieties and awkwardness of trying to Figure It Out.™ Reeves plays the blue flame FBI Agent Johnny Utah, who's sent to infiltrate a surfer gang suspected of a series of armed robberies committed while donning masks of various former presidents. It is a truly bonkers storyline — not too far from other fever dream-like plots that dot Reeves's lengthy resume. But I knew that I had just been privy to a masterpiece.

Reeves's performance in Point Break was enough to pull me out of a deep grey funk during what's supposed to be the most exciting season of the year. His voice, so striking in its singularity, was the soundtrack to the discomforting process of growing from young adult to adult-adult.

The film is quintessentially summer. Watching Reeves run around with his gun while chasing Anthony Kiedis — who's donning what appears to be two rat tails in place of sideburns — feels like those long summer days when you lolloped around aimlessly with your friends (sans the bank robberies and president masks, of course.) What appears to be the reckless and philosophically bankrupt motives of both Utah and the gang of robbers becomes a meticulously calculated narrative arranged with surgical precision thanks to Bigelow's tutelage. Swayze's willingness to be flung from airplanes 30,000 miles aboveground and Reeves' Virgo tendencies of having everything be "superperfect." Can we get it superperfect? I imagine him saying it in a velvety warm voice, like someone talking through a mouth full of bread, and the thought is comforting. If I can't get this summer to be superperfect, Keanu can.

His performance as Johnny Utah is stuck in the amber of our first impression. He fits right in as the SoCal underdog rattling off waterborne surf speak as if it were his mother tongue. "The correct term is babes, sir," he says to the FBI director and you chuckle to yourself, unsure if it's because he's making fun of surfers or making fun of himself.

In period pieces, Shakespearean plays and adaptations, and through varying accents from English to Texan, Reeves's voice when he acts remains constant — which is, in deep sincerity, captivating to watch. Against my own points of anguish and overthinking, the hypnotic surf sequences and car chases — interrupted with the brow furrowing of a one Johnny Utah trying to figure it out — pulled me in to enjoy the ride. 52 screenings later, and the magic of his Point Break performance has not dwindled. Like a wish for snow on Christmas day fulfilled, it's a promise of delivery: that even if things don't go as planned, if you can't have the summer you wish you were having, you can have the sure promise of his SoCal accent tumbling at a constant mezzo as you stream Point Break for the 53rd time. That was the summer I finally accepted the misery marathon of being a person.

Living up to the Hawaiian translation of his first name, Reeves's voice is a "cool breeze." It's his voice that sets him apart from his action star counterparts — differentiating him from the overwrought machismo of Schwarzenegger's brash Austrian accent, Bruce Willis' growl-whispers and Tom Cruise's obnoxious, distinctly American charm. His voice feels like it's incapable of straining to make itself heard, but it doesn't need to because we'll all lean in to listen to mindblowing bits of dialogue delivered with authentic emotion. At once it is soft and tempered, like a whisper on the brink of breaking through into a normal speaking tone — yet it never does. Take the platitudes of John Wick: Chapter 2: "The blade is in your aorta; pull it and you will die. Consider this a professional courtesy." Courtesy considered! Or the Taoism of Scott Favour in My Own Private Idaho: "It's when you start doing things for free that you start to grow wings." (A freelancer's nightmare!) Even his vehemently hormonal role in Parenthood as the terribly misguided boyfriend of Martha Plimpton's Julie, where he pulls out a camera before they do the rumpy pumpy: "Now we can record our love," he says, and even that reverberates with a gentle romance. That's Keanu!

He's someone whose whole body seems to be saying "dude." The critic Angelica Jade Bastíen once said that he missed his calling as a silent actor. But it's his distinct voice, so lacking in verbal dexterity that it strings together his virility and vulnerability, that extends his legacy past the expiration date assigned to his ilk. Instead of relying on the cartoonish physical transformation so expected of action stars, Reeves has his voice. With his stoic gaze and transfixing stillness, he ropes us all in, tapping into something primal that draws our attention. Maybe it's the heart-inflating humanity of his characters or the Zen-like saviour qualities he embodies. Either way, it's a voice so soothing and earnest — exactly what someone craving certainty and comfort needs.

About the Author

Nourhan Hesham is a writer and proverbial Keanu Reeves historian from Toronto.