Main cast: Kate Hudson (Kazu “Zu” Gamble), Maddie Ziegler (Music Gamble), Leslie Odom Jr (Ebo Odom), Héctor Elizondo (George), Mary Kay Place (Millie), and Brandon Soo Hoo (Tanner)
Music is a lovely example of how a white savior, imagining herself to be stepping down from the heavens to perform a great benevolence to autistic people everywhere, ends up getting hilariously canceled by the very people she is hoping would kiss her feet for being such a good, good person. In fact, the fact that Sia wrote, directed, and had full creative control over this movie ends up making me give a side eye to all her previous music videos. You know, the one with Maddie Ziegler playing this monkey girl-thing that jumps around making crazy faces? The fact that Sia cast the young lady to basically play the same kind of street performance here has me wondering whether Sia has been making a fetish out of what she imagines autism to be in those music videos.
While touching on this matter, it’s hard to avoid the elephant in the room: the creepy undertones of Sia’s “maternal” relationship with the very young Ms Ziegler. The girl grew up among dance moms and hence likely didn’t have the sense or willpower to say no to any controlling adult, and Sia had boasted in interviews about negating a movie role for Ms Ziegler because she wants to “save” the girl from “bad people”. Mommy knows best, in other ways. Sia once bragged about writing a movie just for her “muse”, and it’s easy to imagine that it is this one. Poor Ms Ziegler—the movie role Sia talked her out of accepting can’t be worse than acting like a crazy monkey girl for the umpteenth time for someone whose behavior, were she a man, would be considered by many as grooming.
Even more hilarious is how Sia, when confronted by people on social media, especially autistic actors, wanting to know why Ms Ziegler, that doesn’t have autism, is cast, claims that she initially hired a non-speaking autistic actor that she eventually, magnanimously let go because the filming conditions were “too stressful”. Why she would make a movie full of shining lights and flashing colors, when she claims she wants to make a new Rain Man for the new generation of autistic kids that will view her as their savior, I have no idea. She claims to have done three years of research on autism for this movie; maybe she researched in all the wrong places. Seriously, when even the pariah Autism Speaks joins in the clamor of criticisms lobbed at this movie, that’s when Sia really messed up bad.
How is the movie, though, actually?
Well, I can say that, take away the autistic kid angle, the end result would be a haplessly clichéd trauma porn movie. Kazu Gamble has to take care of her autistic sister after their grandparents died, and Zu is a sad, ex-alcoholic drug dealer just wanting to flail artistically to show everyone how beautiful torment and misery look like or something like that. Ebo Odom is the neighbor with a super put-on African accent because Sia really wants everyone to know that she should be applauded for casting a black actor in the lead role. He too has his share of stereotypical black guy in a movie issues: domestic violence, et cetera. Oh, he doesn’t beat people—he’s the stereotypical magical N-word trope that is perfect and exists only to fix white people’s problems. He is, surprise, a boxing mentor to kids facing domestic violence issues, and he also doesn’t like boxing, he just teach this, ugh, violent sport because he needs the money. I can practically hear Sia whisper into my ears at this point, “My black guy is not like… you know, those black guys!”
Because Ebo is a magical N-word guy, he soon helps Zu realize that she needs to clean up her act. He also helps her relate to Music better, although I understand that many autistic folks take offense at the portrayal of the “right” ways to get to Music in this movie, especially a controversial scene involving the use of a restraint. Shouldn’t someone that had done three years of research on autism realize that the use of restraint can cause great injury and worse to the autistic person? His reward for helping a white woman get her act together is, of course, her honey: despite these two having no discernible chemistry whatsoever, these two are supposed to fall in love eventually.
It’s all very predictable, the story, made worse by a cast that seem to be blinking and walking around in bewilderment instead of actually acting. There are some pretty noteworthy former A-list actors in the cast, maybe they are here and bitter because they realize that their career is reduced to taking directions from Sia on an overlong version of her music video.
Yes, this movie features music montages that are supposed to provide insight into non-speaking Music’s psyche. Music, both the movie and character, really exposes how Sia truly feels about autistic people, because that character has Hollywood autism. You know, the kind of autism that isn’t really a mental condition as much as it is a secret superpower, and Music’s final form is revealed in the climax when she suddenly starts singing and lo, she is now just like her mommy Sia. Music is never a character as much as a prop to bring the adults together and to demonstrate Sia’s cracked version of white savior complex. The girl, a budding teenager, is portrayed like an idiot savant with an infantile point of view. She is rarely given agency, as the adults around her treat her more like a big potato that has to be lugged around and propped up as a source of melodrama whenever the plot needs one. Music’s behaviors and traits are exaggerated, as if Sia’s research consisted mostly of TikTok and YouTube videos of self-proclaimed and self-diagnosed autistic people bragging about having every symptom and trigger under the sun, and her going, “Oh yes, Music will have every autistic trait ever, no matter how unrealistic that would be in real life, because my Maddie, er, Music is going to be most very absolute-est special-est autistic snowflake ever!”
So yes, this movie is basically a 100-plus minute version of Sia’s past music videos, with Maddie Ziegler going through the same performative epileptic-autistic monkey girl act that makes Mama Sia clap happily like a well-fed seal.
To summarize, Music is Sia’s effort to show the world that autistic people are exactly like they are portrayed in other equally unrealistic yet better-made movies: autistic children are cute, act up only in compartmentalized moments that never intrude into your daily schedule significantly, exist solely to make you look like a noble parent for not throwing that autistic kid into the trash in the first place, and will reveal their superpowers at a dramatic, triumphant moment, after which they will transform into superhero kids that will never, ever, be bothered by the ickier truths about what it really means to have autism. For that, she expects to be lauded, and throws a stink fest on social media when she doesn’t get her desired reception.
Sia should stick to writing a variation of the same song for the one-millionth time instead of writing and making movies… or has that well dried up for her too?