I didn’t even know Music existed until a couple weeks ago. The musical was nominated for two Golden Globes, including Best Comedy or Musical, and a passion project for the pop singer Sia. She wrote, directed, and cast her music video muse, Maddie Ziegler, as the titular figure Music and filmed back in 2017. Then I read about the backlash from the autism community for the film’s portrayal of autism and I became more intrigued. Currently, Music rates even lower on Rotten Tomatoes than Cats, and the reviews have been equally as baffling and unkind. Sia has responded defensively on social media to her film’s critics, and the brewing controversy has given the movie a fascinating rubberneck quality of, “You have to see this.” It is with that morbid curiosity that I sat and watched Sia’s Music, a movie awash in misguided decisions.
Music (Ziegler) is a teenager living in Los Angeles who is severely autistic and in need of care. She needs eggs in the morning, insists on a walk around the neighborhood, loves dogs, and has her headphones on to shield her from being overwhelmed by exterior noise. Music escapes into elaborate fantasies where she dances along to soaring pop songs. Her grandmother dies early and the only living relative is Zu (Kate Hudson), a recovering drug addict who doesn’t want to play mom to her demanding younger sister. Eventually, Zu begins to see her sister differently and bonds with her neighbor, Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.), who teaches boxing classes to the neighborhood youth. Zu is getting her life straightened out and learning responsibility, though she might ultimately still decide Music is too much for even her.
Let’s tackle the biggest issue of contention, the film’s portrayal of autism. Ziegler is not autistic or, to my knowledge, neurodivergent. This fact alone doesn’t necessarily mean the movie was doomed to insincere failure. It may well become the norm that neurodivergent actors play neurodivergent characters, much as it seems has happened with trans characters and firmly established for ethnicity. However, I think much of the response to a person outside of a community portraying that community comes from the intent and the depiction. Are they coming from a good place? Are they trying to portray this life in an honest fashion? And is the portrayal harmful, derogatory, or trading in negative stereotypes? With Music, I have no doubt that Sia was coming from a good place. She has spoken about the autobiographical elements of the movie and basing the character of Music on someone that she knew personally. I know there are people like Music on the autism spectrum. It’s a spectrum for a reason. The problem comes with the depiction of a person this severely autistic from an outsider. I’ll explain in a comparison.
In 2001’s I Am Sam, Sean Penn played a mentally challenged man fighting for custody rights. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. In the film, Sam had a group of friends, all of whom were similarly mentally challenged, and some of them were played by actors who were genuinely living with that same condition and others were played by actors only pretending. It was very apparent who was who, and it made the entire movie feel uncomfortable because it felt like the real people were being caricatured in literal proximity. It didn’t feel right, and I can’t imagine twenty years later that filmmakers would make that same choice. On the other hand, with the Netflix series Atypical, the lead character is played by a neurotypical actor but the portrayal of a character on the spectrum is done with great empathy and consideration, with an outreach toward those within the autism community. Intent and depiction are the keys.
The onscreen depiction of autism in Music is pretty galling and potentially harmful for those within the community. It’s all negative stereotypes. Ziegler is constantly contorting her body, making silly putty faces, side-eye glances, hitting herself in the head, and playing to the most abrasive and controversial cliches of those living with autism. She can barely mutter more than a few words, usually in imitation. Because this is the depiction of the character, having a neurotypical actor in this role can feel plenty insulting to many viewers. Music is less a character and presented more as a burden because of her needs and challenges. She gets Zu into trouble and lashes out in public. At no point does Music come across as more than an assembly of tics and ugly stereotypes.
It’s not just that the depiction in unflattering, as all characters do not need to be unerring shining examples for their individual communities, it’s that the movie doesn’t bother to give her any inner life. There are a few of passing comments about how Music sees the world, like a savant too pure to take in all the majesty at once, but these are merely gestures. The biggest opportunity into the mind of the character would have been through the numerous musical numbers but these are, by far, the most confusing artistic choice by Sia. I was expecting the musical numbers to provide insight with Music, to give voice to a character who has trouble communicating. Someone would ask how she was feeling and we’d zoom into her mind and the singing would be her way of expressing that answer or her complicated emotions about any topic. The use of singing and music would be her voice. Alas, this doesn’t happen at all. Like at all. This is shocking to me and the movie never really recovers from this misstep. The musicals are confusing because they often seem to be from the perspective of Zu instead and communicating her own struggles. Is Music just imagining her own sister’s inner turmoil through dance? There are also musical numbers devoted to exploring Ebo’s inner turmoil. That means two other characters are given primacy over Music in her own personal imaginary musical interludes.
What is the point of the musical numbers then, besides squeezing in ten or so Sia music videos into a dramatic narrative that doesn’t appear to be connected to them? The music videos themselves are very reminiscent of Sia’s recent output, largely single takes and bursting with bright pastel colors and goofy costumes that look like a children’s TV show. The dancing is interpretative, which means a lot of emphasis through the body movement and facial expressions, and you may find it slightly lacking or perhaps too goofy that it takes away from the emotional content or attempted investment. I enjoy musicals and I even like the approach, in theory, that Sia would have been articulating, shedding light on a personal experience that re-sees the world as a more whimsical, wholesome, and friendly environment. This approach succeeded in Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, where Bjork’s love of old musicals shaped the way she chose to escape from the world and highlighted the discrepancies between fantasy and reality. That’s not what Music does or even attempts to do. You could remove the musical numbers completely or just serve them on their own. The only direct story connection comes with a side character, a Chinese teenager who is pushed into being a boxer by his belligerent father. He secretly wants to be a dancer. In his lone appearance in the musical numbers, he gets to indulge in his dream and dance and sing (or lip synch) and it has emotional resonance because it’s an expression of his inner desires and the longing is felt. Why is this one supporting character, who could have easily been removed entirely from the narrative, the only one that fits with the approach to the musical interludes providing actual insight? As far as the quality of music, it sounds very much like Sia’s pop ditties and there are a couple winners. “Together” has a buoyant bounce and swooping, cheerful melodic hook that is hard to resist.
Hudson (Bride Wars) is the real main character of the movie and her struggle with responsibility is a familiar arc, from screw-up on the margins to matured adult with goals and a found family. She’s an trying to stay clean though she’s really just looking to skip out on life and enjoy a permanent vacation in Costa Rica. This is even her stated goal after inheriting the guardianship over Music. There are plans late to transfer her sister into a group home but this deliberation isn’t really given the attention it’s due, in fact I don’t think I can recall even the mention of it prior to the potential move-in day. The character of Zu is completely stock, a neo-hippie wild child that needs to learn to slow down and accept responsibility. I don’t know what that looks like because for most of the movie she’s just having her sister tag along while Ebo explains things about autism in a delicate fashion (including physical restraints, which have met with plenty of disagreements from the autism community who cite the danger they pose). You would think Zu might have a better handle on this stuff, or that her grandmother would have been more helpful with that instruction book she left behind for the care of Music. This is more a movie about a recovering addict getting her life together and bearing with her burdensome younger sister. Seriously, the character of Music could have been a coat rack for all the impact and agency displayed. Hudson does an admirable job with what she’s given even if grungy and strung out are hard for such a naturally sunny and charming actress more prone to breezy rom-coms. Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) is wasted as the kindly neighbor harboring a secret and mending a broken heart. At least he gets to sing too.
While watching Music, I kept thinking of an obvious creative choice that would have sidestepped a majority of the mushrooming controversy and spared Sia. Why not just make the character of Music someone with a different condition? Why not make her suffer from post-traumatic stress, or an anxiety disorder, something keeping her form living the life she desires and communicating all that goes on inside her person? Automatically, it eliminates the controversy over the negative depiction of autistic stereotypes from a neurotypical actress and it makes the character more a central figure in her own story that can be developed and examined. Frankly, in 2021, we don’t need portrayals like Music to better understand life with autism. This kind of movie might have been met more charitably in the 1990s but now it’s instantly problematic, and I feel like much could have been avoided by removing the autistic aspect to Music’s character, especially since it does so little to the story other than create havoc and challenge. Beyond that, Music falters because the many musical sequences fail to tie back to the characters in meaningful ways. I’m confused over the shifting perspective as well. From a technical standpoint, the movie looks and sounds like a professional movie with a polished Sia soundtrack. However, it’s the poor thinking behind these decisions that dooms the project. While it’s no Cats-level disaster, at least nobody was living with human-feline creatures at home. Music is not a good movie but it’s the kind of rare artistic flop that might be worth viewing just for its audacious missteps, like 2018’s Welcome to Marwen. I don’t think we’ll be getting a second feature film from Sia any time soon.
Nate’s Grade: C