'Music' Repeats Some of Hollywood's Biggest Sins
Sia’s controversial film is an offensive, infuriating, and baffling mess.
The very first time I heard about Music, the new musical film co-written and directed by Australian singer and songwriter Sia Furler, I thought to myself, “How on earth did this get made?” This was in November 2020, after an early trailer previewed the story of the titular Music, an autistic teenager played by dancer and actor Maddie Ziegler, a real-life teenager who does not have autism.
The backlash arrived almost immediately.
If this were a more traditional movie made by committee, that extremely warranted backlash might have been met with a tepid statement from a studio or director offering an apology and a commitment to diversity in the future, but Music isn’t just any old movie, it’s a passion project. And so the immediate backlash was met in kind with immediate pushback from Sia herself, who experienced a very public Twitter collapse as she stepped in it over and over and over again while trying to defend the film. She tweeted, among other things, that she had tried casting a girl with autism for the role of Music, but the actor found it “unpleasant and stressful,” at which point Ziegler was brought in. She wrote that her “intentions are awesome” and that she “spent three fucking years researching.” She also wrote that she worked with Autism Speaks, a nonprofit that many disability activists and people with autism say does more harm than good, and which has faced claims of equating autism to a disease and failing to actually include people with autism in its efforts.
Things continued to snowball from there, as leaked scenes showed characters using a controversial restraining technique designed to subdue a person with autism during a meltdown; the technique has proven dangerous and even deadly for many disabled people. As the problematic ball of yarn continued to unspool, I found myself wondering yet again: How on earth did this movie get made?
Then in February, just days before the movie’s release, Music was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards. Mere hours after the nominations were announced, Sia tweeted an apology and announced that the restraining scenes would be removed and a warning message would be added to the film stating that it “in no way condones or recommends the use of restraint on autistic people.” Sia’s account is now deleted.
In the weeks leading up to the Golden Globes, Music’s lead actor, Kate Hudson, told Jimmy Kimmel, “I think it’s an ongoing, important dialogue to be had about neurotypical actors portraying neurodivergent characters. It is an important one to have with people who are experts and really know how to engage in the conversation, so I encourage it, really, truly. We are listening.” In a statement to The New York Times, co-star Leslie Odom Jr. also said, “I am listening.” Thankfully, these empty olive branches didn’t yield any fruit: Music lost in both of its categories on Sunday night. While I'm very glad I didn’t have to ask myself, “How did this movie win awards?” I do have to continue to ask how it got nominated (even for what's essentially a fake award given by a body that subsists on sheer bribery and inflated importance) and again, how it ever got made it in the first place.
That question has only become more baffling now that the film has been released. One of Sia’s primary complaints during the initial phases of the controversy was that people hadn’t even seen the movie yet. Or as she put it, ““Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.” Well, eventually people saw it, and the reviews described it as patronizing, cringe, offensive, a fiasco, misguided, and tone-deaf, among other things.
The autism community saw it too.
All this said, I knew Music was going to be a difficult watch going in, but it was excruciating in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. The thread above offers a concise and nuanced explanation, and I think it’s of the utmost importance to hear reactions from the people the movie claims to depict. But the portrayal of autism is harmful for everyone watching, not just those in the community, or adjacent to it.
From the first few moments of the film, Ziegler’s depiction of Music is painfully grotesque (she has said she watched YouTube videos and documentaries, and got coaching from Sia for her performance). She grunts, flaps her arms, and twitches. Her hands clench and unclench, her eyes blink with purpose. These kinds of mannerisms are familiar to anyone who has spent any time with people with autism or frankly, anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the common physicality of a person with autism. Music is largely nonverbal—she squeals and laughs, says a few words and sentences, and uses a button communication device to express herself. Her face jerks around, but when she puts her headphones on and listens to music, she is at peace and calm.
That sense of serenity is visualized in a distinctly energetic and extremely Sia way, with over-the-top musical sequences, elaborate costumes, dancing, and singing. In the first sequence, Music is in an orange room with a matching orange costume and braided headphones. She runs around, gesticulates, and dances, and if there’s one thing I can say for these numbers (of which there are many), it's that they are a perfect vehicle to showcase the talents of Ziegler (almost like she was perhaps meant to play Music all along???).
The very first musical sequence is for a song called “Oh Body.” Here are some of the lyrics:
In my dreams my body does not control me
My imagination sets my spirit free
In my mind I’m free of electricity
My imagination sets my spirit free (Hey!)
Gotta leave into fantasy
Coz reality is too much for me
Get away, get away
Send the light in on holiday
Divorced from the content of the film, these lines are innocuous pop missives. In context, you cannot help but read it as an ableist message of someone constrained by their body or mind, particularly when paired with Ziegler showcasing her virtuosic physicality and joyful expressions of movement. It comes off as an alternate, better version of the reality Music is actually living in. Defenders might say that’s reading far too much into it, but at best it’s an oversight and at worst it is full of intention (and unintentionally telling on the author behind it).
For her part, Ziegler has largely stayed out of the controversy surrounding Music, and I don’t blame her. She was 14 years old when the movie was shot, and it’s been documented by Sia herself that Ziegler raised concerns about the performance and even cried on her first day of rehearsals. Beyond this particular project, the pair seem to have a deeply strange relationship, which includes sleepovers, Ziegler calling Sia her godmother, and a devotion on Sia’s part that must be extremely tough for young Ziegler to navigate. It's hard enough to be someone's muse. I can't imagine what it's like when the age and power dynamics are so dramatically imbalanced. While appearing on an Australian talk show earlier this year, Sia said of Ziegler’s casting: “I realized it wasn’t ableism—I mean, it is ableism, I guess, as well—but it’s actually nepotism, because I can’t do a project without her. I don’t want to.” I'm sorry, what??? On her Instagram (where she only follows Ziegler) Sia also wrote: “This movie is a love letter to everyone who has ever felt they didn’t have a voice.” It’s hard not to wonder whether the young star was allowed to have one while the movie was being made.
Before I proceed to rip this movie to shreds in detail, I feel it necessary to say that I generally don’t think it’s all that interesting to dissect a piece of art that’s this egregiously awful. But Music made itself a worthy target of discussion when it held up an autistic caricature as its emotional center and then set her aside. I can affirm that Music is all the things that critics have said: it’s offensive, harmful, cringeworthy, and tone-deaf in its portrayal of autism. It’s also just an unbelievably bad movie.
I can’t imagine you’re reading this and planning on watching Music, but a word of warning: major spoilers ahead.
In brief, Music is about Zu (Hudson), a newly sober and ~chaotic~ woman-child who must navigate the experience of suddenly being tasked as the caretaker for her half sister, Music. When I say that Music is about Zu, that’s because it is. I’m not sure why they called the movie Music or made it seem like it was about Music when it’s not actually about Music, but I could make some guesses. Anyway. Zu is a mess!!! Are we supposed to love her still? I honestly couldn’t tell, though it seems like the character is a bit of a surrogate for Sia herself. But she is not likable. She’s irresponsible, selfish, unreliable, and pretty much a terrible, entirely self-interested person. She jokes and even makes some inquiries about sending Music away. Over the course of the movie, though, we see her have what I guess is supposed to be an arc of struggle, learning, and redemption. Everyone and everything around her exists as a prop in that journey, including Music.
As Zu flails, we never actually learn anything of substance about Music. We know what she eats for breakfast, how she likes her hair styled, that she takes a daily walk, and that she finds comfort in her headphones. That’s about it. Everything related to the plot revolves around Zu—her struggle, her loneliness, her need for help, and her need to heal. No one asks at any point what Music might need or want. She’s there watching, often literally in the background of scenes where Zu is up to other things with other people. This might have been more forgivable if the movie had been called Zu, which by the way, is short for Kazoo (???), but you can’t call your film Music, and then make Music set dressing. But hey, maybe this film is a high-concept commentary on how literally no one cares about Music, not even the filmmaker.
Among the many things we don’t know about Music is anything about the nature of her disability aside from what it means for Zu. The movie never actually gives a name to Music’s disability—which is itself a problem and one that’s been common in Hollywood depictions of cognitive disability all along. Music is described as a “magical little girl” who “sees the world in a completely different way.” During Sia’s Twitter tirade (yes, a lot happened on Twitter), she said, “I’ve never referred to (the primary character) as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said.” Again I have to ask: what?? In a press release, she’s described as “a teenager with special needs.” This lack of specificity is on par with everything that’s wrong here: there’s a nod to inclusion and understanding, but nothing more than that. It’s a song without a melody, if you will.
Another common Hollywood trope in neuroatypical characters is that they often need to be pure, productive, or both. Music is pure (she literally dresses in all white), but there’s a purity issue with every other character in Music too. Everyone in Music’s everyday life is cheerful, helpful, and genteel, and the challenges in her life stem only from Zu’s inability to properly execute Music's well-established routine. In a different piece of art, such a choice might serve as a poignant fantasy. Here, it just seems unconsidered and uninformed.
Sia and co-writer Dallas Clayton have populated the universe of Music with what I imagine they consider to be a diverse cast of “real” characters, but their world comes off as an insincere Sesame Street of broken people, all of whom exist to serve the story of a white woman, who remains committed to self-destruction until the very end, when she becomes “good” and learns to love, apparently. You can sense the movie reaching for a pulse—to feel electric, like a celebration of life and its many unique players. It wants to take you high and bring you low, but in the end, it feels like nothing at all. There’s a difference between compassion and pity, but I’m not sure the writers of Music are aware that such a distinction exists. It’s a self-obsessed, self-important film masquerading as something full of compassion. It's an insult to the people it supposedly depicts and an insult to the audience.
Another question I kept returning to while watching Music was: Who is this movie for? And it’s on that note that I am compelled to include what might actually be the most bonkers thing about this movie, even though it has nothing to do with the character of Music (like much of the movie!). During the course of the film, a lot of screen time is devoted to Zu’s life as a minor drug dealer, which reaches its apex at the home of a very wealthy and potentially lucrative client. As Zu discusses details of the sale with an assistant, she glances over the assistant’s shoulder and says (I shit you not): “Is that a Sia wig?”
Reader, it is. Zu then approaches Sia herself, in a makeup chair, robed, with her face covered in a green mud mask, where she explains what exactly the drugs are for:
“We’re doing charity now. You know what we’re gonna do with the drugs we buy from you? We’re going to send them to Haiti because there’s been an earthquake. All these buildings fell down and children’s bones were dislocated. Now they’re trying to put them back together and they’ve only got Tylenol. There’s all this red tape, even the Red Cross can’t get in. And that’s where you come in. We’re gonna buy a shitload of pain meds and put them on my private plane. Charity.”
Her parting words to Zu are delivered with a shrug: “Pop stars without borders.”
I cannot accurately convey what it’s like to experience this scene in the context of this movie. I’m not sure I can ever recall feeling so confused and shocked and so unclear of my own sobriety (while completely sober at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday). Clearly Sia thinks she’s playing an exaggerated, caricature-ish version of herself, but god, it’s a beautiful self-own to have named this “character” Sia, have it be played by Sia, in a film directed and co-written by Sia, with several Sia songs prominently featured. A self-obsessed and falsely righteous popstar with a misguided-to-the-point-of-being-outright-offensive scheme to help people she doesn’t understand in a way that is ultimately self-serving and not actually useful? Couldn’t be her....
This scene also brought up yet another question I can’t shake or seem to answer, which is, when does this movie take place??? In a movie with few details tying it to a real place or time, why include the 2010 Haiti earthquake? Mentioning a very real and very specific instance of mass death and devastation in your kooky fairytale about love and music is an odd choice, and it’s even odder as the crux of a bad joke. If the movie is indeed set a decade ago, it’s a fitting detail for a film that truly does feel like it’s of another time—outdated and outmoded, a relic of the past forged in the present.
One more detail of note: In another poorly written and tonally confused moment in the film, a character we’ve also barely gotten to know is suddenly and quite shockingly killed by his father (I can’t even get into it, but trust me when I say that as underbaked and disorienting as my description). The character, named Felix Chang, is sent off in a musical sequence in which characters are styled like this:
Truly when I say this movie is for no one and is offensive and awful on many levels, I mean it.
While Music is an especially dire example of the Hollywood machine run amok, its faults are nothing new. Hollywood has been doing this since Hollywood began. It’s not just that non-disabled, neurotypical actors have routinely been cast in disabled, neuroatypical roles, it’s that these roles are commonly Oscar bait. Tom Hanks won one for Forrest Gump. So did Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man (incredibly, Sia has described Music as, “Rain Man the musical, but with girls”). Sean Penn was nominated for I Am Sam, as was Leonardo DiCaprio for What's Eating Gilbert Grape. It happens so much that it’s a joke: On an episode of the show Extras, Kate Winslet (playing “herself”) actually says, “You are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.” It was parodied in Tropic Thunder. It was parodied on Mr. Show. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the depictions of physical disabilities portrayed by non-disabled actors (The Theory of Everything, My Left Foot, and The Upside , just to name a few). These performances are part of a grand old Hollywood tradition of depicting underrepresented groups with a narrow lens to make them not just palatable, but exhilarating to the masses.
Movies don’t happen in a vacuum. So many people along the way in making one have to say “yes” (or not say anything at all) to get them onto the big screen. And still, in 2021, we find ourselves here, reckoning with the reality of an uneducated, offensive depiction meant to reflect the lives of two percent of the U.S. population. It’s “inspiration porn”—a term coined by the late comedian and disability advocate Stella Young—that serves to manipulate an audience while sanitizing the experiences of real people. It’s painful and infuriating. It's par for the course.
This, I suppose, is exactly how Music got made. The movie's palpable sense of pomposity makes it clear that its makers believed they would be showered with awards, gratitude, and praise. Not only that, I have the sneaking suspicion they were hoping for a long-running stage production as well. As many times as I asked myself the question, the answer was ultimately quite simple. This movie got made because it's a formula that has worked in the past. It's part of a long, shameful history—one of many in popular media—where the powers that be were not only allowed to get away with offensive depictions of people with disabilities, but were praised for it. It seems, perhaps, like that era might finally be coming to an end. Slowly, but surely, that system that's been in place for decades is showing its cracks as audiences make it clear they're not going to tolerate it anymore. They're ensuring that a movie like Music won’t be made again. And if you believe that culture can help engender real change (which I do), that's even better, because as it stands, our country fails people with disabilities in catastrophic ways each and every day, and it has for years. And it's a big part of why we have to do better on screen.
Obviously the spectrum of portrayals of disability in film is vast, and it hasn't all been bad. In fact, things are slowly changing for the better, even if at a snail’s pace. That's good news, though what's less is encouraging that portrayals of disability are also plummeting. Still, in recent years we’ve seen movies like The Peanut Butter Falcon (in which a man with Down syndrome plays a man with Down syndrome!) and television shows like Speechless (a show near and dear to my heart in which an actor with cerebral palsy plays a character with cerebral palsy!) The fact that such representation does exist successfully in media makes Music an even tougher pill to swallow—and makes it even more apparent that it’s a step backward.
What made me most incensed as I watched Music (and if you’ve read this far, you know there was a lot!!) is that there are so many stories it could have told. I would love to see a movie with a $16 million budget truly grapple with the very real, often dramatic particulars in the life of a person with autism. The things that the movie touches on with a passing glance—things like how this country cares for people with disabilities or how music is therapeutic for many people on the autism spectrum—could make for enlightening, gripping cinema. And I would love to know what the world really looks like through the eyes of a person with autism, not speculation in the form of a fantastical monochrome music video scored by Sia.
In her mea culpa for Music, Sia wrote, “my research was clearly not thorough enough, not wide enough.” It’s an obvious admission at this point, but it’s also a telling one. If the creators behind Music had valued the people they were portraying, they would have done that work from the start. They would have stepped back and let someone else step up. But it’s safe to say they weren’t actually interested in telling an autism story, they just wanted to use autism to tell someone else's, which is exactly why we need diverse storytellers and representation in every area of TV and film production. It's really not that complicated.
If there’s one good thing that might come from the mess of Music, I hope it’s that studios, streaming services, and TV networks don't shy away from disability stories but instead realize that if there are enough people to shout about and cancel a bad portrayal of autism on screen, there might just be enough people to watch (and buy) a good one. And who knows, maybe a broader audience would like it too! After all, a good story, well told, doesn't discriminate. And you can take that to the bank.