Music review: Sia’s catastrophic directorial debut uses autism like it’s a ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ poster

The singer-songwriter’s first film strives for something profound, but ends up a colossal failure

Adam White@__adamwhite
Thursday 18 February 2021 13:27
Music (2021 film) trailer

Dir: Sia. Starring: Kate Hudson, Maddie Ziegler, Leslie Odom Jr​. PG, 107 mins

Sia once cultivated a transgressive sense of mystery. A cult indie pop artist turned global pop star and songwriter, who’s written tracks such as Rihanna’s “Diamonds”, she would appear on red carpets and onstage wearing elaborate wigs that concealed her face. We knew little about her outside of her lyrics. She told us that she hid herself in public as a form of protection, fame having always been an unappealing prospect for an artist who began quietly and never intended to be as big as she became. With her shambles of a directorial debut Music, unwanted fame has been traded for unpleasant infamy.

A baffling inspirational drama plagued by bad directorial choices, the film has been trailed by controversy over its depiction of autism. On her Twitter account, Sia has loudly got it wrong – mocking its neurodivergent critics (she later apologised) and appearing defensive over her decisions as a writer and director. Music has been called everything from offensive to plainly dangerous for its depiction of a kind of physical restraint linked to serious injuries and even death. Sia’s creative reputation has been left in tatters. The mystery has gone, replaced only by frustration and discomfort. It would be sad if it wasn’t so easily avoidable.

Kate Hudson stars as a recovering addict named Kazu Gamble, or “Zu”. She is flaky, reckless and sad, and makes ends meet by dealing pills for a kindly LA drug lord. Interrupting her hazy aspirations to move to Costa Rica is the sudden arrival of her half-sister Music (these names!), played by Sia’s regular artistic collaborator Maddie Ziegler. Music has autism, and is without a carer after the death of her grandmother. She also regularly escapes into candy-coloured pop-video fantasias. Zu struggles and needs money, bonds with Music, and discovers forms of magical thinking from a cheery Ghanaian neighbour named Ebo, played by Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.

Considering the volume of criticism relating to the film’s poor depiction of neurodivergent people, the biggest surprise here is that Music isn’t actually an autism movie. It’s a story about recovery from addiction, and restless people striving to be better. But that only leads to further problems. This is very much Zu’s film, with her autistic half-sister solely a means for personal growth. In Music, Ziegler’s character is less a girl than she is a prop, a concept or a sentient “Live, Laugh, Love” poster – something to be talked about from across a room, to be used as a font of wisdom, or to be planted face down on the floor when she’s being too vocal in public.

The neurotypical Ziegler was 14 years old when filming commenced in 2017, and reportedly worried about her casting while on set. While her performance here is catastrophic, it’d be unfair to lay any real blame at her feet. Music is a character who is ill-judged from the off, regardless of the amount of research Sia claims to have done while writing her. That everything around her is similarly ill-judged just drives home Sia’s failings as a filmmaker. There are distracting cameos (from Juliette Lewis, Henry Rollins and Sia herself), odd stabs at celebrity satire, and a lack of internal logic when it comes to the colourful daydreams that Music – and later Zu and Ebo – performs in.

Music is clearly striving for something profound. There are gestures to the power of one’s imagination, the importance of play, and the traumas of addiction. It’s undeniably well-intentioned in its can-do earnestness. But just because something is well-intentioned, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a total disaster. Let’s toss a huge wig over this thing and pretend it never happened.

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