Music (2021) – Review

Music is currently available to rent on all video on demand platforms, but don’t waste your time.

Content warning: discussion of child abuse, sexual assault, ableism. This is not attended for shock value, but given the incredibly disturbing implications of the film and its creator, it would be more harmful to pretend it’s not there.
By Palmer Rubin

A combination of disparate factors led Music from its chaotic production in 2017 to its release almost half a decade later. Firstly, it’s a film that was already basically shelved in post before the pandemic because those in charge (minus its writer and director) must have fully realized that they had screwed up giving an egomaniacal pop singer full creative control over this film. A film kept from a release date this long is almost always a stinker, with exceptions here and there. The hope must have surely been for the film to finally make its investors some profit as the pandemic raged on and content became more and more sparse.

Unfortunately for the multi-hyphenate known only as Sia, the internet likes nothing more than something one can dunk on without the slightest shred of guilt. She had made a film so deeply reductive that even D.W. Griffith would’ve raised an eyebrow. It didn’t matter how many shady charities began bleating in support, it didn’t matter how many reactionaries supported the film out of spite, the damage had been done.

For those not entirely understanding what I’m on about, consider yourselves lucky. Sia, she of “Chandelier” fame, had decided it was not enough to be a musical artist, but had to become a filmmaker instead. Madonna had done it (to largely negative reviews), Boots Riley had done it (to much better results), so surely she must be in their company as well. The film she came up with largely involves a nonverbal autistic girl named Music (this film is anything if not subtle) who serves as the arbiter for the needs and desires of her neurotypical family and friends. Music has essentially no dialogue other than a series of borderline incoherent musical numbers which she dances through in clothing and sets that must’ve been stolen from Katy Perry’s closet. Despite the film’s generic name and its lead character stripped of all agency and authority, it ultimately ends up being a redemptive story about how her older sister Zu (played by Kate Hudson, who must’ve lost a really expensive bet to be here) is able to rebuild her life by becoming Music’s caretaker.

That in itself has been repeated as a narrative so frequently, a neurodivergent character becoming the MacGuffin for a neurotypical one, that part of the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder dedicated itself to viciously mocking those exact type of films. Granted, that film had its own issues in its depictions trying to make fun of those movies. The point has already been made that Music is so close to the premise of Simple Jack, the film-within-a-film of Tropic Thunder, where Ben Stiller plays an even more regressive version of Forrest Gump, that it might as well be copyright infringement. Normally, it’s hyperbolic to go that far, but that’s basically what you get here.

The problem with Music, outside its general tone-deafness and the way it treats its lead character like an animal rather than a person, is that its troubled production is far more prescient than anything the film itself does. Music is every one of the tropes from a film like Rain Man or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close magnified to catastrophic proportions, and Sia’s own lack of research or lived experience into the very sensitive subject material. Music was initially played by a neurodivergent actor who has gone unidentified (I can hardly blame them) who was then promptly fired from the film upon expressing discomfort with the premise. The character was in turn replaced by Maddie Ziegler, a neurotypical actor best known for being a contestant on “Dance Moms” and a past actor in many of Sia’s music videos. That in itself would’ve been damning on its own, to the point where even Ziegler publicly denounced the film recently, having been only 14 when it was filmed.

The film features several scenes where characters forcibly restrain Ziegler with their entire body weight and describe it as loving and caring treatment. This was promptly denounced pretty much all around as “prone restraint,” essentially a torture method that has led to multiple neurodivergent people to be killed by police and family members in the process. That Sia would frame the entire film and Music’s mental state around something as fraudulent and harmful as conversion therapy was just the final nail in a coffin made entirely of deeply dehumanizing choices. The scenes in question are genuinely terrifying to witness, coupled with how cheerfully Hudson’s character goes through with it. If this film had even the slightest shred of compassion or empathy in its design, this would be a horror film about a deeply ableist older sister abusing her younger sister.

That’s what makes the film so incredibly difficult to talk about, and hard to categorize. You can’t simply dismiss it as a terrible film on the levels of Tom Hooper’s Cats because the problems go so much farther than animated rectums. That the film potentially not only proudly endorses the abuse of its lead character but also potentially the abuse of its lead actor by such a public figure is one we don’t run into often. The first and most crucial thing to note is that it would be deeply irresponsible to blame Maddie Ziegler in any way for the film that we have here. She’s already publicly expressed her regret in working on the project, and given her relationship to Sia (and the uncomfortable descriptions offered in the press), it doesn’t sound like she had much of a choice. Ziegler is essentially forced to play a dehumanizing role, often with mocking facial expressions and body movements associated with stimming. Sia genuinely believes that a nonverbal autistic person has no thoughts or feelings of their own, and Music’s musical numbers are more of vague aspirational statements delivered like a Super Bowl commercial rather than any insight into how Music thinks or feels about anything. Sia literally does not see this person as a human being. Music is framed more as an automaton than a person, and to have that level of abject hatred for neurodivergence, on such a visceral level, is deeply disturbing. You don’t make a movie like this unless you despise anything outside your preconceived notion of a “norm” on a molecular level. Music is not a person to be considered, she is treated like a domesticated housepet who has to be punished for not learning tricks.

What makes it different from Forrest Gump then? The devil is in the details, and I don’t intend that as a defense of that film’s own blatant ableism. Forrest Gump is a film that features a scene where a lead character “cures” his own disability by running fast and hard enough, visually reflecting the belief a lot of able-bodied people share regarding mobility issues: you must not be trying hard enough! Music applies this same logic to autism even as Music herself is an able-bodied character. Yet Forrest Gump, in spite of how blatantly toxic such a depiction ends up being, is still a film that gives him the bare minimum of clearly having wants, desires, and basic humanity of his own. It’s a paternalistic and condescending sort of bigotry we find there, with weak attempts to try and shame characters who mock him. Music is the far more overt and blatant sort, the kind a hate group like Autism Speaks would advocate for (even as they themselves denounced the film, a really bad sign given their history of gleefully promoting eugenics as a “cure” for autism). The viewer who desperately does not want “politics” in their films might be aggrieved to constantly hear this bell being rung these days, but I would also interpret that as a person directly stating they’ll never be impacted by this kind of portrayal and the harm normalizing this will end up causing. The last thing we need is for Sia, intentionally or not, to be endorsing the abuse of children given how nobody is more likely to abuse a child than the people who hold authority over them. That’s a scary reality to face, which is why we see so many similarities between the parents dehumanizing their autistic children and the rampant TERF movement primarily located in the UK, but also growing in the US as well. Sia may as well be to neurodivergence what J.K. Rowling has become to transgender children forced into natal puberty, such is the extent of her influence and power in this industry. Factor in how there is an increased likelihood in being both autistic and queer (gender identity aside) because it is becoming safer for people in their identity and in their cognitive experience to express those tendencies without punishment.

You might ask: what does this have to do with my stories? It has everything to do with your stories. It is the very fabric of every story. Like it or not, even the film or television show deeply dedicated to frivolous escapism takes a political stance in trying to run away from the real world. Music is ironically very much this film, and a film more dedicated to centering the perspective of a nonverbal autistic person, with that person writing and directing at best and consulting at worst, would’ve brought this away from the surface-level fable Sia badly wanted this to be. She sees Music as Pinocchio or Dumbo or any other number of innocent waifs largely passive in their own narratives. Maybe a closer comparison is Little Orphan Annie, but it’s a new film desperately invoking the worst of an earlier age, where children were seen and not heard. Hell, film a story where the only change is that Music is neurotypical and it ends up being an accidentally terrifying film to witness. Without the explicit portrayal, you have Munchausen-by-proxy given the way Kate Hudson’s Zu repeatedly assaults Music in the name of love.

Does this in turn mean that any story about an autistic character can’t be joyful and energetic the way this fails to be? Absolutely! An example I saw shared around on Twitter as an example of neurodivergence done correctly was the Percy Jackson series. Its author, Rick Riordan, is neurotypical, but his son is neurodivergent (not specified) and felt unrepresented in the literary canon. Percy Jackson, far from being a Harry Potter knockoff, is a character written with ADHD and dyslexia that is able to achieve great things not in spite of those experiences, or because of them, but simply in conjunction with them. They are aspects of his life that he experiences in a world that is largely built to be inaccessible to him, and yet he is as much a heroic figure as any neurotypical character gets to be. Riordan himself may not live this experience, but a person he deeply loves really is. It’s a huge shame the films largely got rid of this important part of Percy’s characterization, even if those are crimes of omission rather than outright malice like we see here.

And the Percy Jackson books don’t rant about this on a soapbox. The portrayal is there, and Percy struggles with it based on external sources making things more inconvenient rather than anything he did wrong himself, and that’s it. The series is still a frolicking series of adventure tales with all the action and derring-do the most proudly “apolitical” people can’t get enough of. It does not have to be grimdark in order to tell a nuanced story depicting an experience almost completely absent from the stories we see told. We have to find proxies in places that aren’t intentionally trying to tell those narratives.

My own personal experience to this was strange because I have never been diagnosed as such, nor do I want to claim an experience I ultimately don’t have for myself, but I could still see bits of myself in Sia’s vicious mockery. I have spent my whole life with sensory issues, being overwhelmed by excessive amounts of light and sound. I have found myself mostly unable to read social cues and body language, feeling like everyone else got an instruction manual that I didn’t get to read. I have even only felt calm moving my fingers around or jerking one of my shoulders up and down, movements that felt relaxing that I was ultimately taught to repress. Whether I’m on the spectrum or not (I have never had a formal diagnosis, though I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 12, which is often compared to the spectrum), I still resonated with a character being viciously attacked just for displaying these behaviors that don’t harm a single other person. The funny thing is that in the mockery, I found that the only part of the film that even remotely works is Ziegler herself and her futile attempts to bring any kind of humanity to Music. Every other actor phones it in, the musical numbers are inane and grating, pretty much everything about it stinks of an amateur holding down hardworking crew members just trying to get a paycheck however they can. Nobody else here seems to truly care other than Ziegler. Can you really blame everyone for not caring though?

The metatext of the film, an actress forced to play a part she doesn’t want to play while controlled by an older woman who is given complete and autonomy over her body and life, ends up being far more fascinating than the film itself. Sia, in her egomania, creates a film that is as much a confession as it is a monument to her overwhelming narcissism. She even appears as herself in a brief cameo where she spends her short screentime bragging about the charity work she does for children. What kind of insecure, preening void of a human being could create a film like this? And so it ends up becoming the filmic equivalent of witnessing Cthulu at the end of a H.P. Lovecraft novel (himself famously a paranoid bigot who put his hatred of others into his work). You’re at the mountains of madness, millions of dollars poured into an ouroboros, a snake named Sia eating her own tail and destroying everything in her path so that she could be worshipped one more time. You’re likely to go insane without a path you can possibly chart in such turbulent waters.

That being said, I do want to end this by linking to a piece by Hari Srinivasan which I think is required reading. This is his lived experience and not mine, and it would be incredibly unfair not to elevate his voice in the midst of all of this.

I give Music a F.

Sia Criticized for Casting Maddie Ziegler as Autistic Lead in New Movie |  Consequence of Sound