Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Music is tone-deaf in all senses of the word

An autistic critic's thoughts on Sia's controversial new movie
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There are some movies that are so bad they’re good. There are some movies that are so in-your-face offensive it’s funny. Regrettably, Sia’s directorial debut “Music” was neither.

For those who haven’t been keeping up on the drama relating to this film, Sia became a subject of controversy after she cast a non-autistic actress as an autistic character, worked with known anti-autistic group Autism Speaks, then doubled down on insulting those who suggested she listen to the concerns of actual autistic people. She went so far as to compare autistic people to inanimate objects before telling would-be critics to watch her film before passing judgment. As an autistic critic, I did so, and judge I shall.

“Music” is ostensibly a film about the titular Music, a nonverbal autistic girl played by the non-autistic Maddie Ziegler in a painful caricature of disability. However, for all the time dedicated to pretentious musical sequences, she could easily be replaced with an animal or an expensive lamp for all the film cares. Music, true to Sia’s belief, is little more than a plot device or piece of set dressing. Instead, “Music” focuses on her older sister, the callously selfish drug dealer Zu (Kate Hudson, inexplicably nominated for a Golden Globe), and her struggles dealing with Music’s needs.

I cannot stress enough what a disaster this film was from start to finish. “Music” manages to be profoundly insensitive to the point of being nauseating to watch. Music herself is essentially a non-character whose needs and level of ability vary depending on what the film demands. She exists exclusively to inspire neurotypical people with her “inner strength” and act as a conduit for Sia’s self-indulgent and hideously oversaturated song and dance sequences. I shouldn’t have to tell you how disgusting and patronizing this is. Her acting is little more than choreography, her stims and tics set to the beat as she moves in a grotesque pantomime of what I and people like me experience every day. Yet, she seems to live a charmed life, unaffected by grief following the death of her grandmother and offered free fruit and smiles by strangers on the street. Frankly, the most realistic depiction of the autistic experience in this film is Zu’s total disregard for her autistic relative and ignorance of the condition.

The privilege continues to show in the depiction of Leslie Odom Jr’s Ebo, a black man and magical autism whisperer who evidently lives to serve this white family and dispense down-to-earth wisdom. In a strangely cheerful tone, he explains that his own brother was autistic and died. What was his name? How did he die? It does not matter, as Ebo goes on to directly endorse a dangerous method of physical restraint that has led to the deaths of dozens of autistic people. He’s the most blatant example I’ve seen in years of the Magical Negro, the enlightened yet folksy black man who helps the white hero on their journey while lacking any personhood of his own.

Even if one can ignore the blatant racism and ableism, “Music” fails to deliver a coherent narrative, developed characters, or even pleasing aesthetics. I found myself checking the time constantly, as this proved to be the longest hour and a half of my life. At one point in the film, a minor character is murdered on screen and it doesn’t affect the plot whatsoever. It’s never mentioned and we never see anyone react. At another point Sia makes a guest appearance as herself. I’ll let you take a wild stab in the dark at how much influence this has on the events of the film. The closest thing to a character arc we see in the entire run time is (spoiler alert if one cares about this paper-thin narrative) Zu changing her mind about giving Music away to a facility that probably is better equipped to care for her than an alcoholic drug dealer.

Music is bad art marred by bad representation and bad intent behind the scenes. If this review leaves you morbidly curious, all I can tell you is that it’s not even worth a hate watch. Frankly, I’m less offended as an autistic person than I am as a film aficionado. Watching this movie was one of the most draining experiences of my life. Sia’s directorial debut should stay her directorial finale, and I feel worse off for having witnessed it.

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