Is Sia’s film, “Music,” cause for concern?

Story by Anna Johns, Staff Writer

Picture courtesy

The musical drama Music has been heavily criticized by the media. The film has been called “offensive” and “unwatchable” by numerous media outlets. After sitting down and watching for myself, I have to say I agree. 

The film follows Music, an autistic teenager (Maddie Ziegler) who lives in New York City in a small apartment with her grandmother Millie (Mary Kay Place). Music has a strict daily routine and her neighbors and friends keep an eye on her. She lives near an adopted boy (Beto Calvillo) who lives with his abusive parents. Down the hall lives Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.). One morning when Music returns from her morning walk she finds her grandmother has died. The authorities call her only living relative, her half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson).

Zu is working to overcome her addiction and struggles after becoming the new guardian of her sister. Zu enlists the help of her neighbor and love interest Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.). Throughout the movie, bright colorful musical sequences show Music’s portrayal of the world around her. 

The film was directed by pop singer and songwriter, Sia. She has worked with Maddie Ziegler since 2014, and the dancer has served as the public face for Sia’s secretive persona. The problems with the movie first arose when Ziegler was cast as Music, an autistic teenager. Many on social media were outraged. Sia claims that originally she had “tried working with a beautiful young girl nonverbal on the spectrum,” but when it didn’t work out she cast Zeigler. 

Zeigler is not autistic; however, in the film, she plays the part. She stims, talks in low grunts, uses exaggerated facial expressions, and has frequent meltdowns. Though the intentions of casting Zeigler were not done out of spite, the character presented in the film is damaging to the autistic community. 

The issue is the film is directed by a team that has a neurotypical understanding of what autism is. They only touch the surface level of this disability and by casting a neurotypical actress to play the role of an autistic character, the entire production seems like a mockery. Supporters for the film have argued that in previous incidents abled actors have played disabled actors, for example Dustin Hoffman in Rainman and Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The difference is in those films the actors presented an honest and realistic portrayal of autism. 

Music presents the idea that those with autism live in a magical and colorful world. This is presented throughout the movie in bright, upbeat musical sequences filled with ridiculous costumes and dancing. The bright flashing colors featured in the movie also make it unwatchable for those it was made for — people with autism, many of whom have epilepsy. Additionally, the movie had several disturbing scenes including one where Music is pushed against the floor and restrained. 

Putting aside the issues with Music’s character, the film is still a disaster. Though the soundtrack and performances are interesting, it is hard to ignore the various plot holes and unlikeable characters. 

The film is now nominated to two Golden Globes and many are upset. Some have even created virtual petitions to rescind its nominations and I completely agree. The petitions argue that Music has harmful stereotypes and is “severely ableistic.”
Previously Sia, the director, described the film as “a love letter to caregivers and to the autism community;” however, it is far from the truth. Though the film had good intentions, sadly Sia missed the mark and comes across as a misguided attempt at an inspirational film.

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