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Music (film)

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Starring:
For me, the process was basically, I work out the movie. I'll act it out, I'll have the dialogue already in my head. Like, when I sing, I just want to sing the melody and write the lyrics. I don't want to have to do production, which is very technical. I don't enjoy that.
—Sia Fuller[1]

Music is a well-intentioned but ultimately ableist pop psychology film, directed by Sia. Music portrays autistc people, via its titular character Music, as being socially inept, emotionally over the top and hyperdramatic, unable to cope with even the slightest changes in routine, and as seeing the world in surrealistic ways. Much criticism of the film came from Maddie Zeigler's performance as Music, which has been described by autistic advocates as being stereotypical and ill-researched, and for relying on negative or outdated perceptions of autism. In the time since its release, the film has become a prime example of how a well-intentioned project can become a hurtful smear against a marginalized community.

Origins[edit]

The project was announced sometime in 2015, when singer Sia Furler announced that she was directing a film starring Maddie Ziegler.[1] Zeigler is a dancer and actress who has appeared in many of Sia's music videos, and has worked with Sia since she was 12.[2] She was set to be cast as the lead from the inception of the project. While the film was initially intended to be non-musical, it evolved into a musical during production, with Sia recording a full album for the film. Filming was completed in 2017, but editing went on for 3 years because Sia wanted it to be "the best movie it could be".[3] After several delays, the film came out in January-February 2021 globally, to overwhelming criticism. Some points made against the film include:

Hah. That'll get rid of the haters.
  • The character of Music, as stated before, was seen by many autistic advocates and other members of the neurodivergent community as a harmful stereotype. Zielger portrayed the character as mute, unable to communicate without text-to-speech, disconnected and childlike, and as having frequent mental breakdowns. While all of these are legitimate symptoms of autism, to have all of them and to the extent that Music expresses them is highly unrealistic. The portrayal also estranges autism as turning someone into an outcast, when many are capable of coping effectively in society with proper support connections. This is not autism, this is the politics of fear.
    • The blame here should not be placed on Zeigler who, after only one day of rehearsals, ended up in tears, scared she was making fun of autistic people.[4] The comment got effectively backhanded without Sia even considering that there may be truth in that. To this day, Ziegler acts with a sense of naivete about the film, and admits to the divisiveness off the film.[5]
  • During production and filming, Sia professed she wouldn't let the idea that Ziegler was making fun of autism happen. However, it's clear from how Sia wrote the film, and from the fact that no autistic or neurodivergent people were involved with the production of the film, that didn't uphold this promise to Zeigler. When pressed with extreme and insurmountable criticism of her directing, her true colours shined through, as seen with that tasteless tweet on the right. She defended her choice of Maddie because Music was a "low-functioning" character,[6], attempted to claim nepotism was good because she needed Maddie to make art,[7][note 1], and by loving up Autism Speaks,[8] among other things. Sia doesn't use words here to convey her thoughts and feelings, she uses them as a tool to manipulate instead.
  • Leslie Odom Jr. was cast as a friend of the main character Zu, whom he develops a relationship with because he knows how to deal with an autistic relative; essentially, he is a Magical NegroWikipedia. He teaches Zu how to pin Music down and press her body weight onto the girl: this is referred to as restraining, and is considered very dangerous for the person involved. Moreover, the film portrays this in a positive light, which further added insult to injury.
    • Ultimately, Sia would beg for mercy following the leaking of one of the film's restraint scenes on January 20.[8] She stated she would apologise and remove such scenes from the film, saying she hadn't "done enough research". Later releases of the film have these scenes removed, and the film would have a disclaimer at the beginning.
  • The musical scenes of the film are meant to be from Music's perspective, implying that she sees the world in an abstract way. While this is another autistic/neurodivergent misconception, it is also a point of irony, as the film that tried so hard to be a serious(ish) and realistic drama about life with an autistic person has scenes that could cause sensory overload for actual autistics.

The fallout[edit]

While Sia ultimately did apologize for (some) of her actions, she had a mild temper tantrum on Twitter responding to autistic actors and advocates.[9] She has said little about the film since, other than in press releases and late-night interviews.

Critically, the film has been almost universally panned. A small minority of defenders exists, but the general consensus is that Music was a misguided, poorly researched, and self-absorbed effort by a musician to get representation points. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint (AASR), and CommunicationFIRST have spoken out against the film and condemned its restraint scenes, as well as Zeigler's/Sia's depiction of autism. On the other side of the coin, Autism Speaks (where Sia got most of her research from) and the National Council for Severe Autism spoke in favor of the film, with the NCSA stating that shaming Sia for casting choices was a "tragedy for the arts and the autism community." [10]

The film itself was a major flop, grossing around $600,000 off of a $16 million dollar budget. While this may be partly attributed to limited releases and pandemic traffic, in the end the film was killed by the negative PR surrounding it, the negative response to Sia's own responses, and the growing concern over her relationship with Zeigler, which apparently has involved the two living together and sleeping together in the same bed since Zeigler was still a teen. Yikes. Regardless, it is unlikely that Sia will dip her hand into the world of directing again, given the sheer weight of backlash against this film. Hey, at least it won 3 Golden Razzies.[11]

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. Sia's obession with Zeigler, who was a minor when Sia propped her up and shot the film, is worrying. It's as if Sia thinks she can put stuff on Maddie to absolve herself from any blame or wrongdoings.

References[edit]