Content warning: discussions and descriptions of ableist sequences within Music.
I’m genuinely struggling to remember the last time I saw a film that was as perplexingly terrible. Even with Tom Hooper’s notorious Cats I at least got some enjoyment out of it, and the only offense it caused was to anyone with a vested interest in the concept of musical theatre. As somebody on the autism spectrum myself (Asperger’s), I went into this fully aware of the red flags and sh*t-storm that had been kicking up since the initial trailer drop but still wanting to give Music the benefit of the doubt. My bar was on the floor, yet even that was insurmountable.
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Within literally the first 30 seconds after the studio logos have finished rolling, things start going wrong. Music, an (undefined but coded as severe and largely non-verbal) autistic teenager played by non-autistic dancer Maddie Ziegler, starts off her morning routine by getting dressed, and disappears into a mental world of her own where she moves with a dancer’s grace across garishly-coloured and sensory-overloaded soundstages exactly like those Sia herself directed Ziegler to viral success with, set to blaring anodyne pop music exactly like Sia’s big 2014 breakthrough singles, and occasional rapid cutting between alternate takes which could easily trigger any severe autistics in the audience. The film’s not even a minute in and it’s already failing the very people it purports to be in celebration of.
That’s how it starts and I hope you’ve got your Hollywood Autism Representation Bingo cards at the ready cos you’ll be filling out several full houses by the time Music finally shuffles off-stage. Music herself is afforded no actual characterisation or depth of personality beyond ‘coded as autistic’; Sia and co-writer Dallas Clayton’s screenplay, Ziegler’s performance, and multiple characters in-film (including various morality chains) treating her as mentally an innocent infant completely incapable of functioning without a Sesame Street-level support group and having no needs or wants of her own. Multiple times characters refer to her autism (even though nobody actually says any form of the word “autism”) as conferring some kind of special powers that help her see things in a different way, visualised in those afore-referenced quirky musical cutaways which only seem to exist to pad out the runtime and technically qualify the thing as a musical.
Music’s various breakdowns – which unsurprisingly are also depicted in high-stress, sensory-overloading, potentially triggering ways – are always scripted to come at the most inconvenient possible time for her able carers, stigmatising severe autism as a burden for everyone involved. There are no less than three sequences in which other characters are forced to prone-restrain Music during one of her episodes, and every time it is depicted, both verbally and in action, as the right thing to do. Jesus Christ, no! Absolutely do not do that, ever!
And, for anyone still waiting for the opportunity to call bingo, Music isn’t even the protagonist of the story ostensibly named after her. That would be Zu (Kate Hudson) – full name “Kazu” yes really – Music’s half-sister currently on probation and a recovering alcoholic, who is forced into becoming a full-time carer after their grandmother dies suddenly. A drug dealer desperate to get out of the city and with a very self-centred near-nihilistic view of the world, she is nevertheless forced to put her busy plans of being The Worst on hold to learn compassion and empathy and selflessness.
Not from Music, however, despite where all of that may seem like it was headed. But rather from Music’s next-door neighbour, Ebo (Leslie Odom, Jr.), whom Zu immediately starts crushing on and uses Music as an excuse to see him more often, especially after he begins teaching her how to look after Music ‘properly’. (Again, do not use prone-restraint on autistics in the midst of breakdowns.) Zu doesn’t even have all that many positive interactions with Music, and there are lengthy stretches of film where Music is barely in the thing.
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I have problems with the BBC’s There She Goes and how it handles the depiction of severe autism, some of which are shared traits with Music. But, for all its many faults, at least Rosie still feels central to the programme, even if it’s more about how the parents deal with trying to raise her, rather than about Rosie herself. In Music, you could honestly cut Music from the movie and lose nothing. Even as the alleged impetus for Zu to get her shit together, the majority of that comes from Zu’s burgeoning relationship with Ebo, most of Zu’s good times with Music are depicted in last-minute montage, and neither she nor the film display any lasting interest or growth of knowledge in how to care for autistic people. Music gets no character, no insight into what makes her tick or how her autism affects her way of living, no arc beyond an awful closing beat involving her largely non-verbal nature and THE POWER OF MUSIC. That’s what most offends me in how Sia and Music handle autism: as nothing more than an excuse to shoot six or seven new palette-swaps of The Sia Video.
But, wait! It’s not only autistics that Music might offend! It’s also super retrograde in its handling and depiction of race! Although he may not have any actual magic powers, Ebo fits the ‘magical negro’ stereotype to a tee. An immigrant with a contrasting positive outlook on life to our protagonist, one he maintains with noble stoicism despite constant suffering, who teaches underprivileged and wayward kids in the community at his boxing gym, who only really exists to push the protagonist to self-betterment via bon mots (romantic variant), and spends the entire movie secretly dying from a disease the protagonist only learns of by chance at the all-is-lost moment in the third act – three guesses as to which disease that is given how much I’m lingering on the fact that he’s black, first two don’t count.
If you prefer your racism a little less condescending and a lot more unnecessarily blatant, then you’ll get your fill of that from a recurring disconnected subplot involving an adopted teenaged boy (dancer Beto Calvillo) who lives across the street from Music, who seems to exist solely to clumsily shove in some scenes of stereotypical violently disapproving Asian dad domestic violence. I think the boy is supposed to be a distaff counterpart to Music and what would happen if she didn’t have a rigid support group, since he is coded in many the same ways as her, but I honestly couldn’t tell you for sure. It’s also all moot anyway, as following the subplot’s truly tasteless last scene nobody ever speaks of it again afterwards.
Lest you think I’m solely docking Music for being so gallingly offensive, though, don’t worry. It’s an abysmally made mess, too! The visual palette isn’t just likely to trigger severe autistics, it’s also simply ugly to look at. Reality scenes are often underlit and weirdly colour-graded, and the fantasy sequences over-use the pop of deliberately contrasting colours to such an extent that they become exhausting to look at. Staging is unnatural and weirdly inconsistent between shots in the real world, whilst every single musical number is choreographed and staged in the exact same way so as to make them all interchangeable. The tone is all over the goddamn shop, swinging from heavy sobering drama to quirky try-hard light comedy, sometimes within the span of a few lines, like it was penned on a tilt-a-whirl.
The score, co-composed with Sia by Craig DeLeon and her LSD cohort Labrinth, makes certain dramatic scenes more resemble lifestyle ads. There are dead-end subplots, go-nowhere scenes, and bluffed stakes everywhere; it’s an unfocused narrative disaster. Kate Hudson is doing a lesser version of Jennifer Aniston’s work in Cake but without any of the convincing depth or spark Aniston was able to conjure up. I have absolutely no idea what in god’s name Ben Schwartz is doing as the spiritual drug boss Zu works for, his performance and the character’s writing can’t even stay consistent mid-line, but I hate it.
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Ziegler, meanwhile, is truly awful but I can at least understand the mindset she approached her creative decisions from – as a dancer, one with seemingly minimal acting training, focused more on exterior movement rather than interior psychology. Also, as terrible as Ziegler’s caricatured mugging may be, at least she didn’t write the decade’s most unbelievable and embarrassing director cameo for herself – you would not believe me if I told you, trust me.
Just awful. Every aspect of Music is atrocious and even though there were no less than three major sequences where I disbelievingly yelled at the screen “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!” there isn’t a trace of fun to be found in riffing along or laughing at the grandiosity of Sia’s self-involved folly. It’s just repellent. Irredeemable. I’d end with a pithy jab about “sticking to songwriting” but that would honestly undermine the seriousness of how badly Sia has fucked up here and I’m just… so tired of films like this.
Music is out on Digital Platforms on 15th February from Signature Entertainment.