Even beyond its handling of its autistic character, Music is a terribly constructed film.
Before its release, Sia’s Music has generated controversy regarding the handling of its titular autistic character, including the decision to cast neurotypical actor Maddie Zeigler in the role. Sia’s responses to these critiques have only enflamed the hubbub, but tragically, those concerns are immaterial. Not because Music does a good job of handling the perspective of an autistic person, but rather quite the opposite.
Music’s autism proves to be surprisingly inconsequential to the whole movie. Her special interests, sensitivities, even her personality traits are divorced from her autism. They all play a backseat role in the story proper. The only times her autism is apparent is when Zeigler’s uncomfortably caricatured performance leans into stereotypes of how autistic people behave. When I look at Music, I don’t see myself or any other autistic person I know. I see a plot device. I see a way to generate drama. I see the degrading way neurotypical people look at autistic people. But I do not see an authentic rendering of an autistic person.
This character plays a role in a story that primarily revolves around her older sister, Kazu Gamble (Kate Hudson). Recently released from the slammer and a recovering addict, Kazu is in no position to take over caring for Music when their grandmother suddenly passes away. Kazu’s already got her hands full selling enough to pay off a cornrow-wearing gangster named Rudy (Ben Schwartz). With the help of Music’s neighbor, Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.), Kazu begins to understand her sister a bit better. It’s funny. Kazu thought she was changing Music’s life…but in reality, Music was changing hers.
Music’s abhorrent handling of autism has dominated much of the discourse on this movie thus far. But don’t let that distract from the fact that the movie is also bad on so many other fronts. For starters, as a musical, the project is a bust. Rather than have people break out into song, Music pauses its plot to cut away to segments where characters dance around in elaborate sets to non-diegetic songs. Conceptually, these fantasy sequences represent the interior minds of the characters. The execution, however, fails to unearth anything insightful about the cast of Music.
Music’s abhorrent handling of autism has dominated much of the discourse on this movie thus far. But don’t let that distract from the fact that the movie is also bad on so many other fronts.
The biggest issue with these musical numbers is how utterly generic they are. Vague lyrics in tunes like 1+1 make these songs sound like random pop ditties rather than melodies specific to Kazu, Music, and the other characters. As for the visual details of these numbers, they’re colorfully rendered but also repetitive. Once you see one scene where a character dances in an oversized outfit, you’ve seen them all. Plus, there’s a hollow quality to the stylized nature of these set pieces. Their look evokes a Target commercial rather than something truly fantastical.
Worst of all, if you cut the musical numbers out of Music, the movie would remain the same. We wouldn’t be missing any layers to the characters, nor any memorable spectacle. As for the rest of the movie, it’s a bog-standard melodrama so mechanically going through the motions that it’s insulting. This is especially true of Kazu’s arc as a character. From the moment she enters the movie snoozing during an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you can guess where her journey will go step by step. You’ve seen this character plenty of times before, though probably not this lazily executed.
This kind of sloppy writing ends up undercutting the utterly empty central relationship between Kazu and Music. They’re never shown to be bonding, there’s no indication of growth on the part of Kazu. Any of the many times Music tries to wring poignancy out of their rapport, it falls utterly flat. The script doesn’t even try to show generic ways of them bonding, the film just expects us to believe Kazu when she eventually says she loves Music. Their sisterly dynamic together isn’t touching, you just want poor Music to live in a better environment.
Drama outside of these two characters is even worse, particularly a subplot involving a teenage boxer named Felix (Beto Calvillo). Everything with Felix is detached from the central characters, he never directly interacts with either Kazu or Music once! He’s starring in his own separate movie, complete with a stupidly grim ending, that somehow ended up here. Sia and Dallas Clayton’s script is a total mess. Funny moments, like prolonged comedic moments with Rudy, are awkward. Touching moments are merely eye-roll-inducing.
Given that kind of writing, it’s only fitting that Sia’s work as a filmmaker should be similarly underwhelming. Her work in the musical scenes has an occasionally interesting visual flourish, but these sequences quickly just blend together. The rest of the movie has no real distinctiveness to it in its look. Sia mostly makes sure Music looks like an indie drama circa 2012, right down to the occasional pointless use of lens flares.
Her handling of the actors isn’t much better, though I’m not sure Kate Hudson could have handled this role if she was working under the direction of Lynne Ramsey. Hudson has been fantastic in other projects, like Almost Famous, before but here, she fails to lend any weight to entertainment to the part of Kazu. Her depiction of someone struggling with addiction or understanding a sibling with a mental health condition just rings as derivative, she never brings something specific to the table.
And then there’s Zeigler as Music herself. Like Hudson’s work as Kazu, Zeigler’s work as Music is a hodgepodge of other performances. If her only research for the role was watching a YouTube compilation of the movies that inspired the Simple Jack trailer, I’d believe it. There’s no humanity in how Zeigler portrays someone with autism, just a collection of over-the-top behavior traits. In an age where Keep the Change and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay exist, there’s no excuse for this kind of insulting performance to exist.
The lack of interest in Music as a character isn’t just apparent in Zeigler’s performance. Sia’s writing and direction also tend to make Music’s behavioral traits stemming from her autism either the butt of jokes or the source of conflict in the movie proper. She’s never allowed to just be her own person because Music doesn’t see her as a person. She’s emblematic of how the whole movie doesn’t see its characters as human beings, they’re all just a big ball of melodrama and quirks smushed together.
Whether you came to Music for inspirational melodrama, toe-tapping musical numbers, or just Leslie Odom Jr., you’re bound to leave disappointed. The only saving grace here is that, by casting Maddie Ziegler as Music, at least an autistic actor won’t get their career dragged down by headlining Music.
Music will be in select IMAX theaters on February 10th, and available in select theaters and everywhere on demand February 12th.