There are few things that interest me more than a directing debut that flaunts its creator’s unique vision. Not only do I adore the prospect of seeing something new, but it also enables me to think about the passion it took to finish the project. If the final product is a spectacular failure, at least it’s enough of a spectacle to be entertaining. And with Music, the directing debut of famed singer Sia, we have a film that constantly boasts about its vision. It’s so boastful, in fact, that Sia shows up for one scene to proclaim she is a “popstar without borders”. Considering that the film itself has no borders of its own, you could take that as a mission accomplished.
But every once in a while, you get a sobering reminder of why barriers are a good thing. Sometimes they help make a story coherent, and sometimes they help a filmmaker from entering the realm of bad taste. And if there’s any movie that lives in the realm of bad taste, it’s Music. It’s not enough that it gained controversy just from casting the neurotypical Maddie Ziegler as the non-verbal title character. It’s also the kind of movie where the visuals tease a neurodivergent protagonist only for the story to not go forward with that choice. In an age where representation is so vital to storytelling, it’s maddening that Sia & Dallas Clayton’s screenplay ignores that goal.
By shifting focus away from Music, the film essentially becomes a female-centric version of Rain Man, complete with its narrow view on autistic people. Our protagonist is Kazu “Zu” Gamble (Kate Hudson), who becomes the guardian of her half-sister Music (Ziegler) after their grandmother’s passing. Only one problem: Zu does not know the rigid daily routine that Grandma Millie (Mary Kay Place) has established for Music. This results in Music having tantrums over the routine changes and Zu struggling to be her caregiver. But as time progresses, those rough interactions fade away and a tight bond between the siblings emerges.
No part of this premise is surprising, and one can say the same about the execution. Like Rain Man before it, Music does a much better job diving into the mindset of the more able-minded. Because of that, the neurodivergent character rarely becomes an active participant in the plot. Worst of all, Sia falls into the common trap of confusing “being autistic” with “being goofy”. This is most obvious in Ziegler’s performance, as many of the attempts to be non-verbal result in tons of facial mugging. Of course, there is a chance that casting an actual non-verbal actor would lead to a visually similar performance. But knowing that Ziegler’s open-jawed expressions were a conscious decision makes it feel disingenuous.
Still, that’s only enough to make Music a throwback to the most dated of award-bait dramas. Anyone with a proficient grasp of making movies could bring that to life. What could transform this into an actively unpleasant piece of cinema? Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – Sia has plenty of bewildering choices on offer. Among other things, it devotes part of its 107-minute runtime to showing the delightful Ben Schwartz in horrifying cornrows. Because if there’s anyone who needed a hair makeover, it’s the guy who recently voiced a blue hedgehog in a movie.
On a more serious note, it’s when it commits to being a musical where things fall apart. True, the musical numbers allow Ziegler to perform elaborate dances, which is what she does best. Not to mention, these moments provide a glimpse into how Music processes the world. However, it becomes clear that this is a lazy way to maintain the aesthetic of Sia’s music videos. As pleasant as the simple shapes and colors are, never does it feel like a natural extension of the events in the real world. For example, there’s a scene where Zu and Music are having fun near a kiddie pool. But instead of transitioning to a set with colors evoking cool water, it goes to a set with the most eye-searing red you’ll ever see.
By the way, that’s not even getting into how the film chops those musical numbers into incomprehensible bits. With each sequence, it’s obvious that Sia and her editing team were hellbent on creating parallels with the adjacent scene. But instead of letting the song sequences play out naturally, it cuts between realities like a madman. So what you get is one second of a dance move that interrupts one second of a character moment and vice versa. As a result, it’s hard to appreciate both the dance moves and the emotional core of the scene. And in an effort to add gas to the fire, Ziegler’s mugging persists even in these bursts of fantasy.
Hot take: I’m not ready to call Music an unmitigated lost cause. While the material is thin, Hudson does an admirable job at portraying someone who wants to do anything possible to make things right. And I’m at least grateful to see a project with enough intelligence to let Leslie Odom Jr. be charming. But just because I am in favor of a musical that tries to visualize an autistic person’s worldview does not mean I am in favor of this particular one. If Sia’s response to the Music backlash is any indication, I think we had it good for all those years she was in the music industry and nowhere else. – Mark Tan
Music is available on various VOD platforms.
The film stars Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr., Maddie Ziegler, Hector Elizondo, Mary Kay Place, and Ben Schwartz.