Sia’s film, Music, found itself ensnared in controversy months before it debuted thanks to a snappy remark from its creator: “Maybe you’re just a bad actor”. She lashed out at autistic viewers who were begging her to explain why she cast her dancer/protege/stand-in Maddie Ziegler in the role of Music, a character on the spectrum. They wanted to know why they had not been given the same chance as any other actor. And so the Australian singer-songwriter spoke the cruelest words to say to an actor: that maybe they just sucked.
The backlash spiraled out of control from there, with even the infamous Autism Speaks speaking out in criticism of Sia and the film, citing the importance of neurodivergent actors telling their own stories. With the dust settled, Sia’s Twitter account deactivated, and the film having earned a pair of wildly confusing Golden Globe nominations that might be arguably their most inexplicable choice since The Tourist, how does the film stand by itself? To be blunt, it’s probably for the best that neurodivergent actors weren’t involved in this trainwreck.
Music (Maddie Ziegler) is a happy-go-lucky teenager on the autism spectrum who lives with her grandmother Millie (Mary Kay Place). She sees the world differently, as conveyed through a series of brightly colored musical numbers that act as music videos for the ten songs Sia wrote for the film. The entire neighborhood watches after her, making sure she can go through her daily routine uninterrupted. Music’s idyllic life takes a turn for the worse once her grandmother passes away and her older sister Zu (Kate Hudson, now a Golden Globe nominee for acting, like Rose McGowan and copying her haircut) begrudgingly comes to take care of her younger sister. Zu doesn’t know how to care for Music, and doesn’t particularly want to learn how either. As a drug dealer and addict with a lot of debt to pay off, she’s got heavier things on her mind.
There are many egregious things about Music, but the most severe of them might be that the film does absolutely nothing with Music. She exists only for the other characters to react to, and has no internal life of her own. It’s incredibly telling when you notice that she could be replaced by a dog and nothing about the story would change. This isn’t her story: it’s Zu’s. The film is all about her and how she overcomes her addiction and her struggles. It doesn’t give a damn about Music, leaving Ziegler deserted to do nothing beyond a display of autistic stereotypes that feels even more offensive than Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man.
Even if Sia wasn’t interested in centering the story around Music and her reactions to her rapidly changing life, you would think that at least the rest of the film would be passable. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Every character is paper-thin and badly written (Leslie Odom Jr. as a friendly neighbor from Ghana gets royally screwed by the script, which resorts to cheap racist connotations about the country), the direction is flat and lifeless, and the performances are all around unremarkable, with only Hector Elizondo coming out unscathed.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Music is that it had potential somewhere early in the development. Make a film about how neurodivergent people see the world, but do it with careful consideration and care for them. Listen to them, do your research, cast them in your movie. The fact that the film opens with a musical number full of strobing lights is proof that the production didn’t put in even the slightest amount of research to make this a compelling story and a true representation of neurodivergent people everywhere. It’s a failure, both dull and offensive at the same time.
21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.