Sia's musical-drama about an autistic teen girl and their half sister is gobsmacking in its misjudgement and deeply concerning in its message.
Ever since the first trailer dropped back in November of last year, the omens did not look good for Australian singer songwriter Sia’s directorial feature debut Music. According to her twitter, this musical-drama hybrid is meant to be a ‘love letter to the autistic community’ and with an autistic female character at the centre, it should have been a cause to celebrate. Unfortunately, the end product is something far worse. This is because Music is not just a irritably hipster musical that’s so vapid and tiresome despite its eclectic colours and hyperactive soundtrack; it’s also an outrageously misjudged representation of the autistic spectrum that is borderline offensive and painfully archaic in its understanding, to the point in which people who aren’t unfamiliar with this common disability might watch this and take it as fact.
Set in an un-specified city, Music is named after the autistic titular teen girl (Maddie Ziegler) who is at the centre of the narrative. Residing with her grandmother, Music has a strict routine including eggs for breakfast in the morning before she embarks on her daily walk around the local area while wearing bright blue headphones to help drown out noise. Following the unexpected death of her grandmother, Music is immediately thrown into the care of her half sister Zu (Kate Hudson), a former drug addict now turned dealer who struggles looking after herself and Music whilst seeking out help from her neighbour Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.). Nestled between this ‘uplifting’ redemptive tale, the film portrays Music’s outlook on the world through musical sequences that take place inside her mind in the style of her favourite TV show.
There are many problems to say the least and the backlash that the cast and crew have received has been immense, especially surrounding Maddie Ziegler’s performance as Music. Initially (and allegedly) casting an autistic actor before they alarmingly pulled out, Sia reverted back to her long-time collaborator Ziegler who garnered fame for her memorable starring roles in music videos like ‘Chandelier’ and ‘Elastic Heart’. There is no doubt that she is a very talented dancer but in an era where more disabled actors are now starring in neurodiverse roles, casting a neurotypical actor as an autistic character is completely inappropriate. From the very beginning, it’s immediately apparent that Ziegler cannot convey the complex behaviours and subtle mannerisms that’s required for the role as autistic traits like eye-twitching and huddled postures are hideously exaggerated to the nth degree. Autism is a vast spectrum so any media portrayal won’t ever be able to fully represent the diverse group of people that encompass it, but Ziegler’s casting and performance fails to display the authenticity that an autistic actor would’ve likely achieved. It might not completely redeem the film but it would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction.
As far as the rest of Music is concerned, it’s all rather lacklustre. The tone is consistently uneven as it sways between a sentimental drama and outlandish musical numbers. As aforementioned, the fantastical song and dance sequences are meant to convey Music’s mind as we are transported into a strange polystyrene world of brightly coloured costumes and plastic set designs that is less like a Sia music video and more akin to CBeebies’ Tikkabilla. Nevertheless it’s an idea that sounds conceivable, however the end result feels bizarrely unengaging as both the abstract dance choreography and pre-school visual aesthetic provide a surface-level insight into Music which creates the undesirable effect of alienating the viewer from the subject matter at hand.
Despite both of these problematic elements, all of the main issues revolve around Kate Hudson’s Zu. Through her character, the narrative trajectory is similar to Barry Levinson’s 1988 road movie Rain Man as Zu’s redemptive arc mirrors Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbit. But Hudson’s lively and sardonic performance alongside the shallow portrayal of Zu as a former substance abuser is another example of the film’s woeful misguidance in representing certain elements in our society. Worst of all is how Sia forces the viewer to empathise with Zu’s treatment of Music at certain moments, in particular when she physically restrains her after a sensory meltdown in the park. Restraint is now viewed as an unacceptable technique when dealing with autistic meltdowns but watching Zu lying on her whilst Ebo guides her through the steps as though it’s a pivotal hurdle to overcome is so gobsmacking in its misjudgement that in all my three years of writing film reviews for The Edge, I am left mortified and genuinely concerned by the primitive message that these sequences are trying to propose towards a mainstream audience. (Note: Sia has apologised for these sequences and promises to remove them but both the press screening and the version I watched on Prime Video still contained them.)
For all of its disastrous faults, Music is ultimately a wasted opportunity to represent autism for a contemporary audience and it will continue to be dissected for all the wrong reasons as attempts at repairing the damage by Sia and the cast is no doubt underway. As someone who is on the autistic spectrum, words don’t even begin to describe this excruciating and uncomfortable watch and although I hope it will be quickly forgotten about, the after effects for the autistic community will be felt much longer than we can possibly realise.
Music, directed by Sia, is distributed in the UK via Signature Entertainment and available now on certain digital platforms, certificate 12A.