dir: Sia Furler
I have to admit, I’m a fan of disaster cinema. I’m not talking about disaster movies per se, though those can be entertaining as well. I mean movies that come out that capture the imagination of the critics or the public because of, not in spite of, the fact that they are branded absolutely screaming apocalyptic dumpster fires right from the get go.
The people who greenlit this at Warner Brothers in order to keep Sia happy are probably happy that they haven’t been arrested yet, that the opprobrium has dissipated somewhat, and that Music has been pretty much forgotten about, about a month after its expectant mother, Sia, brought it forth into an uncaring and unsuspecting world.
Depending on which articles you read about it, Music was either the worst movie ever made to do with a character living with autism, or the worst movie ever conceived independent of whether autism is accurately or fairly depicted. That it was just a supremely wrong-headed project from conception to realisation is probably unfair to say out loud.
But while more complex questions come to mind, the far simpler one that perhaps captures the essence of the problem from the start is this one: what the fuck were they thinking?
Could no one say to Sia that this was a bad idea? Is she so far gone in her stardom that when people start shaking their heads at something she says they are fired immediately or catapulted out of a building?
If Sia had spoken to a person living with autism, or an autism support service, or advocacy group, would 90% of this had made it into this final cut?
There are plenty of articulate, thoughtful writers with autism who have weighed in to explain just how harmful this depiction of autism is, which I can’t speak to, but can piggy back on, definitely. The argument about who can play what roles is a complex one, again one too complex for me to adjudicate. What I think most of us can agree on is that the days where actors could play these kinds of roles with impunity, and be rewarded with lots of awards, are long gone. Dustin may have won all the awards for Rain Man back in the day, Daniel Day Lewis might have won a bunch of stuff for playing Christy Brown in My Left Foot, even Kevin Spacey won an award for playing Verbal Kint, a character who at least pretended to have mild cerebral palsy for The Usual Suspects.
But those days are over. Although how do we classify Eddie Redmayne’s win for Dr Steven Hawking in The Theory of Everything, which wasn’t that long ago? Wait, now I’m confused.
Claire Danes played Temple Grandin in a movie about her life, and she (Claire) doesn’t have autism. Dr Temple Grandin is famous, if she is indeed famous, for having autism, being quite accomplished in the field of the humane treatment of animals in agriculture, and for having quite a remarkable mind. Though there might have been a bunch of people who grumbled as to why a neurotypical actor was playing a neuro-diverse role, but a lot of people, especially the ones that made the flick, took note of the fact that Danes spent a lot of time with Dr Grandin, in order to assay the role respectfully.
Music, as far as I can tell, isn’t based on any one person Sia met, or knows, or heard about. It seems like Sia imagined an autistic person as a plot device, got her long time collaborator Maddie Ziegler to play her, made seven or so of her usual film clips for her songs, which almost always have Maddie Ziegler writhing around spasmodically, and then got someone else to loosely string the scenes together so that it looks vaguely like a movie.
The flick is called Music, but Music is not the main character. The main character is KAzu, or Zu, played bravely by Kate Hudson. I can’t actually remember seeing Kate Hudson in nearly anything sinceAlmost Famous, and that was a very long time ago. I know almost no critic or reviewer would agree, and I don’t know if anyone else is going to be patient enough to even consider it, but she actually puts in a solid performance into this flick, however ill conceived.
She plays a bit of an amoral chancer, a bit of a ne’er do well, who’s in recovery. She’s broke, pretty impatient, and hasn’t seen her sister in ages, who has been well looked after by her grandmother (Mary Kay Place). And though I think she’s in recovery, as in, trying to stay on the wagon because of a court order, both booze and drugs, she’s trying to make ends meet by working for the least successful drug dealer ever (Ben Schwartz, who’s wearing corn rows in his hair, and Japanese / samurai like robes too, which someone probably told Sia would be funny, when really they were dying inside).
The film forces Zu to look after Music, which she does very reluctantly, and also without knowing next to anything about her or her routines or her triggers. Music does the same things at the same time every day, with little if any variation. The people of her neighbourhood, including a boy across the street (Beto Calvillo), and the cranky but loving superintendent of the building where they live, all look out for her as she does her thing each day.
A helpful and almost magical neighbor called Ebo (Leslie Odom Jnr) manages to educate Zu in the ways of her sister, explaining everything about what she lives with and experiences, and also how to restrain her when she freaks out (everyone, even Sia now acknowledges that these restrain scenes are not only wrong but dangerous, and she claims that the film is going to be edited at some point to change those scenes, but I watched it yesterday (24th Feb 2021), and both scenes are still there).
How does Ebo know about how to best support non-verbal neuro-divergent people? Well, because back in his village, in Ghana, he used to look after his younger brother, who had…something? Sadly, his brother is no more.
But he has another brother, one who has a wedding coming up. That’s right, Ebo’s brother is getting married, to Ebo’s ex-wife. And now Ebo is unsure about love any more.
He is happy to look after Music and Zu, though, but then he has another secret, one which keeps him from advancing his relationship (ie. having sex with) with a very keen Zu.
The film exists uncomfortably in multiple worlds: one of child-like innocence and other grimier adult ones. Music is overwhelmed by the world around us, but has her moments where she retreats to the world in her mind, in which she’s a very accomplished and expressive dancer, running around in settings so painfully colourful that any person who feared being over-stimulated would have the meltdown of all meltdowns. And this happens with frightening over-edited frequency.
It’s the movie’s greatest irony that the people Sia hopes, thinks she’s giving representation to wouldn’t be able to watch it without experiencing seizures.
It happens so frequently that you wonder what in the name of holy fuck does Sia herself imagine it must be like to be Music, or to be any person who’s neuro-divergent and non-verbal. Did she actually do any research, watch a doco even, or read a book once?
Could someone have handed her a copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at least?
At first I thought Music had to be a depiction of how Sia sometimes sees herself. Then once Zu comes long, I thought, “nah, this character in recovery who’s really very fit and can’t stop letting us know it is really the avatar for Sia.” Sia has openly spoken about her struggles with addiction, so it’s not that much of a stretch.
And then Sia herself appears in her own film, as a client after drugs, playing herself (as in, pop star Sia) looking to buy however many tablets Zu can furnish her with, in order to send the drugs to the children of Haiti?
I swear I was totally sober when I watched this film, so I didn’t hallucinate any of that. To say that Sia’s appearance in her own film is strange is to perhaps discount just how much of an understatement using the word “strange” is in this context. It’s fucking bizarre, and I can’t tell if she thinks it’s funny or whether she intended it to be one of the strangest moments committed to the digital medium of film.
It’s odd, odder than anything Music does. For the longest part of the flick Zu is not on drugs or drunk, but she is trying to make as much as she can from selling drugs in order to go to Paradise, some actual place, where she intends to live clean and teach yoga, maybe. But that’s not meant to include Music, and also, no matter the fact that she doesn’t make any money, when she loses a lot of drugs, like, a lot of drugs, there are no repercussions.
I guess the message is meant to be that there are no shortcuts to being clean, and that drug dealing is bad and such. But I honestly wondered at this point, considering how sharply the pendulum swings between cutesy dayglow lunacy and harsh reality during the course of the film, why she wasn’t murdered by her drug dealer. I mean, it would have been the least he could do.
One should really not pretend that very much anything that occurs in this flick really conforms with our Earth concept of realism, but I feel compelled to point out that for one of the other characters in the flick, who gets no dialogue but loves Music, his character arc is like this: moon after / protect Music, be forced to do boxing by horrible adoptive parent instead of dancing, which is really what his heart leaps for, hug opponent in first boxing match, accidentally be killed by abusive parent.
That’s… horrifying, but at least there’s a fantasy dream sequence where he gets to say goodbye to Music?
Wait, is that a good thing? He needed to die to finally be able to communicate with her? Poor Felix.
Sometimes the only way to go up is to bounce off the bottom, and Zu has to hit rock bottom again, well, a couple of times. And then she gets into a fight with, I am not making this up, Henry Rollins! Henry Fucking Rollins, of all people on god’s green earth. And then it has to get even worse before it gets better!
I am… not the kind of person that wants to kick someone once they’re down. It’s not my nature. Piling on to a movie has its own kind of momentum – the more negative incredulous reviews you read, the more you might feel pressure to come up with even more apocalyptic and damning phraseology. Music is by no means one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It’s not even the worst flick I’ve seen this week.
It is muddled, it is strained, but I have to think that what Sia was trying to say, and what we heard, are two completely different, and a bit disturbing, things. Music’s diagnosis I think highjacks a lot of the discourse, to the extent where it distracts dramatically from what could have been a bog standard redemption story about someone in recovery trying to look after a family member and learning to value life again after experiencing someone else’s hardship. If Music had been a quadriplegic or differently abled in some other way, Music would probably still have been rightly criticised, but I don’t think it would have been so hated.
And there is no way that this flick here would have worked any better, or been any less ill-conceived with a person on the spectrum playing Music. They would still have ripped the shit out of it, but the difference would have been they wouldn’t have had the balls or the ovaries to throw shade at the central performance, mostly out of a misplaced sense of condescension.
This won’t win me any favours, even as I accept that I’m speaking from a position of privilege, and I have to acknowledge that the criticism from the autism community is valid and the set of informed opinions that matter in this argument, but: I honestly thought Maddie put in a good, heartfelt, respectful performance as Music, and I think Kate Hudson puts in a great performance as Zu.
How do I judge this: by the end of the movie, the choices they make, the things they said or tried to say moved me, moved me to tears. When Zu’s face is covered in blood, and she’s begging the building superintendent George (the always great Hector Elizondo, who’s got to be in his 80s by now) for help it broke my heart. When Music does what she does at the end of the movie I cried quiet, joyful tears. I know it’s manipulative, but it didn’t feel unearned.
I wish with all my heart that the film around them had been stronger, had cared more about representing Music as a person rather than as a problem, as a character more than as another screen for Sia to project her strange ideas onto, but this is the flick that was made, and this is the one that I saw. And though not great, it’s not completely irredeemable.
5 ways in which Music brings some people together out of love, but unites far more people together out of purest hate out of 10
“Dear Kazu, there's no money... there is however, a magical little girl, your sister... all she's got now is you.” – that’s got to take the cake for being disappointed when reading someone’s will - Music