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Sia's Music Is a Painful, Thoughtless Film That Uses Autism as a Prop

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Sia's <i>Music</i> Is a Painful, Thoughtless Film That Uses Autism as a Prop

When Australian pop star Sia announced she was working on a film starring the non-autistic actress Maddie Ziegler as a nonverbal, autistic character, the reaction against Music’s production was swift and fierce. Many autistic and allied individuals, myself included, condemned not only the casting decision but myriad other problematic elements going into the film’s production.

But I still wanted it to be good.

This sounds obvious at first: Why would I want any movie to be bad? But I’m aware that after being so passionately against this film’s production, out of fear of how it might cast those like myself and others across the spectrum, I had a strong bias against it. And so I countered this by attempting, as much as was in my power, to go into Music with an open mind, viewing it holistically and offering praise and criticism where I felt each would be due.

Half an hour in, I found this much more difficult than planned. Music is a bad movie, but I wish that were all it was. I can handle its poor pacing and stiff dialogue, but even doing research and writing an essay on the film’s problematic elements pre-release were not enough to prepare me for how harmful Music is to autistic people.

The movie starts with the grandmother and caretaker of its title character dying of a stroke, leaving Music (Ziegler) in the care of her half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson), who struggles with drug addiction. Zu soon meets her neighbor Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.), who quickly bonds with her and Music. There are multiple songs throughout the film, but to call it a musical feels disingenuous. Rather, these music video segments, which feel like they take up about a quarter of Music’s runtime, serve as intermissions between the movie’s plot. The lyrics, tone or visuals sometimes loosely connect to ongoing themes and its actors perform in the highly choreographed, colorful sequences with exaggerated facial expressions, but these sequences live entirely outside the context of the “real world” of the film. Instead, they are meant to convey how Music “views the world” through these fantasy sequences.

It’s clear that these music videos are the segments in which Sia is the most comfortable, as the first-time writer/director helmed some of her own over the years. In a vacuum, these segments have impressive choreography and the songs are good (that’s the extent of my ability to be a music critic), and I can appreciate their vibrant colors and exuberant energy, which I can see appealing to some fellow autistics. However, these segments take away from the rest of the film, killing any momentum within the story instead of injecting emotion into it. Given that much of the rest of the film doesn’t have any incidental music, why these songs couldn’t have simply been overlaid on some scenes remains a mystery.

It’s also worth noting that these segments are a cocktail of sensory stimuli, which may be difficult for some autistic audiences to process and could definitely be overwhelming for any autistic performers. Since Sia has admitted that Music originally had a nonverbal autistic actor filming before Ziegler took their place—due to the filming process being overwhelming for the actor—I highly suspect these segments as the culprit.

Even if these scenes were cut, however, the rest of the film fails to say anything substantial about autism, addiction or AIDS—another subject briefly introduced and not followed-up in any meaningful way. Zu is actively neglectful of Music throughout the film, as she continues to struggle with drug addiction, and arguably abusive towards her in two scenes we’ll get to later, but by the end, the movie appears to absolve her of her mistreatment entirely.

One of Music’s most visibly uncomfortable elements is Ziegler’s lead performance. As someone with a family member who demonstrated many of Music’s characteristics (limited vocabulary, using an iPad to convey emotions/needs, motor/vocal tics, etc.), it’s clear to me that Ziegler studied these in others and goes for sheer imitation in her performance: They’re mechanically accurate, but the smaller, more subtle tics and eye movements I’ve come to know aren’t there. The fact that Sia and the rest of the film’s makers decided that this superficial mimicry would be better than casting someone on the spectrum in some capacity rubs salt in an already-open wound.

But nothing wounded me as much as Music’s restraint scenes. These scenes have received so much controversy that Sia has actually apologized for their presence and promised to remove them from future versions of the film—but they’re here now, and they hurt. In two instances in which Music becomes overwhelmed and begins to have a breakdown, Ebo and Zu put Music on the ground and press their bodies against her as she fights back, struggling to break free. Physical pressure is proven to help people across and even off the spectrum calm down—think weighted blankets or vests—but the use of physical restraint should only be from trained individuals and as an absolute last resort. The fact that Sia is only recognizing this days before the movie’s U.S. release cements the fact that she did not listen to autistic audiences or experts throughout the film’s production. The scenes themselves triggered harmful memories as an autistic kid, which made me cry—and not in a good way.

If all these issues haven’t convinced you not to see this film, I’m firstly astounded by your lack of empathy, but I’ll stress that all of these integral issues aside, this is just not a good movie. Characters seem to spend half their dialogue on exposition (of course using Music as an expository device to speak to but never with), new plot points are introduced and never discussed again and its only attempt at humor comes in the form of Ben Schwartz playing a seedy drug dealer, which falls entirely flat. At its worst, Music is physically painful to watch. At its best, it’s just boring.

I’ve seen opinions online, from both autistic and non-autistic people, who say that we should be happy to get something representing us, even if it isn’t great. I reject that. Yes, I want to see more autistic, neurodiverse and disabled people across the many spectrums in more media, both as characters and creators. But I also want these stories and works to be good, and more importantly, to be true to their and our experiences. It is good that Sia is finally listening, but at this point, the damage is done and its two painful hours are preserved for posterity.

I hope this movie doesn’t scare others away from supporting movies by, about and for autistic and other disabled people, but instead inspires them to do it right. We want to create art that speaks to our experiences, and we want to see those experiences on-screen—to process the unique pain and joy of being the way we are and knowing we’re not alone. If Music can get made, I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Director: Sia
Writers: Sia, Dallas Clayton
Starring: Maddie Ziegler, Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr.
Release: February 10, 2021 (limited theatrical release); February 12, 2021 (VOD)


Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.

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