REVIEW: Music (2021)

music_posterShot in 2017 but not released until now, pop musician Sia’s debut feature Music arrives on Australian screens a full month before the rest of the world. It offers audiences here an opportunity to find out precisely what all of the fuss has been about. The release of the trailer alone caused ructions among the autistic community for its casting of an able-bodied actor as an autistic teenager. That controversy effectively exploded when Sia herself angrily responded on social media, variously claiming that she had researched autism for three years prior to shooting the film, that she had the full support of controversial organisation Autism Speaks, that an earlier attempt to shoot the film with an autistic performer failed (this despite also claiming that she had written the screenplay exclusively for star Maddie Ziegler), that it would be cruel to subject an autistic actor to the pressures of a film shoot, and even going so far as to criticise the acting abilities of an austistic actor she had never met in response to their voiced concerns. It is one hell of a context in which to release a motion picture, and does not seem likely to do the film’s commercial prospects any favours.

Music (Maddie Ziegler) is a non-verbal autistic teenager whose grandmother unexpectedly dies, leaving her in the care of her drug-addicted on-probation older sister Zu (Kate Hudson). Initially resistant to caring for Music, Zu learns to connect with her with the help of elderly neighbour George (Hector Elizondo) and Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr) – an attractive African man who lives across the hall.

Putting any issues with presenting autism aside for the moment, Music is not great. Its narrative and screenplay feel deeply naive and derivative, as if Sia and co-writer Dallas Clayton have populated the movie with social issues instead of characters. Asides from Music herself, the film packs in issues of drug and alcohol addiction, class, HIV, and domestic violence. It explores these issues superficially – how else could it do so, given how many of them are squeezed into 100 minutes of plot? Its obsession with making nearly every character representative of a different civics lesson unavoidably opens the film to ridicule. If South Park plotted a parody of this kind of movie, it would be this movie.

The film’s performances are, it must be noted, fairly reasonable. It marks a fairly bold step for Kate Hudson, typically a mainstay of romantic comedy, into more interesting fare. Leslie Odom Jr is effective as Ebo, and Hector Elizondo is – as always – simply wonderful to watch. Maddie Ziegler’s performance feels at least somewhat authentic, but as an able-bodied non-autistic actor she brings along an instinctive mistrust that cannot be overcome.

Sia elects to represent Music’s inner thoughts via a series of abstract and colourful dance sequences, all choreographed to an album’s worth of new songs. While the approach has a lot of creative merit – and, indeed, plays exactly to the director’s artistic strengths – it feels very badly misjudged in terms of tone. The film’s dialogue portrays Music as a highly intelligent neurodivergent woman who sees the world through an excess of stimulation and white noise. The dance sequences instead portray her not only as someone well at home with whirlwhinds of colour, noise, and external stimuli, but also as some kind of perpetually happy and charming idiot. Used in another context, the sequences could feel inspired. Here, more often than not, they feel relatively offensive and suspect. A climactic moment in which Music, silent throughout the film save for sparse two-word sentences, suddenly sings a song in front of an audience, feels like a story instinct at its most crassly commercial. So does the film’s general fear of the word ‘disability’, relying instead on generic, disrespectul terms like ‘special’.

None of this matters, of course, because Sia made the decision to cast her regular music collaborator and able-bodied neurotypical dancer Maddie Ziegler as a teenager living with low-functioning autism.

Do not, do not, do not, do not, do not cast able-bodied actors as characters with a disability. Do not cast neurotypical actors as autistic characters. Do not rob professional actors of badly-needed work in the name of an easier production process, or your own discomfort or awkwardness at their personal circumstance, or a fear of insurance costs, or because you need a better-known name to promote your film. Do not cast an able-bodied alternative because you feel doing otherwise would be ‘cruel’. You cannot be an ally to the disability or the autistic community by silencing us, and telling our stories in our place. Stop infantilising us. Work with us meaningfully, and listen to us. Do this, or get out of the way.

I am a disabled film critic. I am hearing impaired and have relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, and I am tired. I am tired of Music, of The Shape of Water, of Me Before You, of Million Dollar Baby, Forrest Gump, Wonder, Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot, The Man Without a Face, Born on the Fourth of July, and The Theory of Everything. I am tired of Academy Awards being handed out to every actor willing to ‘crip-up’ for a piece of deeply insulting critical acclaim. Stop playing us. Stop stealing for us. We should all be beyond this. We should all know better.

New policy: you drop an able-bodied actor into a disabled role, or a neurotypical actor into an autistic role, and you don’t have a major justification for doing so, then you get nothing. You get no recommendation from me, except the forceful recommendation to every reader to go and watch something else. Music gets zero fucking stars.

17 thoughts on “REVIEW: Music (2021)

  1. This is nonsense. Yes, disabled actors may need work, but the greatest disabled performances are made by able bodied actors – Richard III, Rain Man, Elephant Man. Get off the politically correct high horse!!

    1. Ok, Robin. If able-bodied actors are the best ones to play disabled characters then can us disabled actors get more roles as able-bodied characters? We would love the challenge as all the able-bodied actors loved theirs. It seems fair to me.

    2. Those movies and performances are also offensive FYI. Just because there is a long-standing precedent of Hollywood doing something doesn’t mean it’s right or that it should continue in a more enlightened age. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a classic movie, so was it alright for Mickey Rooney to wear yellowface?

    3. Hi, I am autistic and I do get what you are saying to an extent. I just wanted to point out that the movies you mentioned are about real people who has disabilities which were very different to the ones portrayed by this film. As an autistic person myself, I personally would be completely fine if an amazing actor portrayed my life authentically. Dustin Hoffman, for example, worked with Kim Peek (the inspiration for Rain Man) to portray a character more authentically. Additionally, many autistic actors (such as Anthony Hopkins, Dan Ackroyd, and Daryl Hannah) have had incredibly successful careers with award winning performances. I don’t think it is fair to claim that the greatest disabled performances are made by able bodied actors. I guess that is one opinion, I personally believe some of the greatest disabled performances are made by disabled characters (such as Sarah Gordy in Call the Midwife, RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad, and Micah Fowler in Speechless).

      I was initially super excited to hear that Sia, an artist I admired, was releasing a movie about a teenage autistic girl. The main issue I have with Music is that I can relate to the character in a lot of different ways, especially the sensory difficulties and the escaping into another world in my head when the real world is too overwhelming. However, the portrayal of autism misses the mark, it is inaccurate. In the end Music ends up being a caricature of a non-verbal autistic person. I myself am verbal (although I was situationally mute when I was Music’s age) but I have non-verbal autistic friends who share the same opinion as me.

  2. Grant, thanks for sharing that you are disabled. But I will say, I am sure glad that you don’t have the power to make the rules as to how films are made. The best filmmakers are looking for the best possible way to tell the story. If a disabled person auditions for the role and is the best person for the job, so be it. The authenticity will make the film all the better. But, if an able-bodied actor lands the role based on auditions, so be it. Do you have any disabled person to recommend that could have sold Stephen Hawking’s story better to viewers than Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything”? That’s kind of the whole point of the role of actors–playing someone other than themselves.

    I understand why you may feel strongly about this but lowering production values in the name of intersectionality moves us in the wrong direction. I personally see beyond disability and believe that it should not define the person. But, this also means that a disabled person should land the job if they can outright win the job on capability. They have a certain advantage to play the part they are auditioning for. But they shouldn’t be handed the job because of their disability. That is disrespectful and patronizing to them and a step backward for high-quality film making.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jerry. One thing I think is important to consider is that this is more of a human rights issue than a creative one. Actors with disability deserve the right to tell their own stories, as much as people of colour deserve to tell theirs.

      If disabled people were regularly getting roles written for non-disabled actors this wouldn’t be so much of an issue, but we aren’t. I saw some data from 2016 or so that showed only 3% of characters in American television were disabled, and of those characters only 5% were played by people with a disability.

      There are so many reasons why disabled actors don’t get cast in roles, and most of them having nothing to do with talent.

      1. What about the movie ‘rain man’ or ‘ what’s eating Gilbert Grape’. Those actors…..

    2. I understand your point, but if there was an equal balance and opportunity for disabled people to get these kind of roles in the first place, this wouldn’t be an issue to begin with.

    3. Jerry, I assume that you are not disabled or have much knowledge or understanding of the disability community. As an autistic person, I have never seen a non-autistic actor give a good performance as an autistic character. They all, without exception, feel like caricatures and mockery. Yet these performances that are so offensive to me and many other autistic viewers are lauded by neurotypical reviewers, many of whom have never met an autistic person, as “groundbreaking” and “touching.” Abled people are usually not good judges of what makes an authentic disabled performance.

      “But, if an able-bodied actor lands the role based on auditions, so be it.”

      That’s not what happened in this situation or most other casting situations. Actual disabled actors usually aren’t even considered for disabled roles.

      “I personally see beyond disability and believe that it should not define the person.”

      Just so you know, disabled people hate it when abled people say things like this. It’s patronizing and demeaning and really only serves the function of making the abled person feel good about themselves for “not noticing” disability.

      1. Mara:

        Re: “I personally see beyond disability and believe that it should not define the person.”

        This is the equivalent of “I don’t see color”. Like “I don’t see color”, it’s something that was _sort of_ okay to say thirty years ago (because the conversations around race/gender/disability hadn’t progressed to where they are today)– but when you hear it in 2021, it shows the speaker hasn’t kept up with the way the conversation has changed.

        Thirty years ago we didn’t “see” disability (or race, or gender), because we didn’t WANT to see it. If we SAW it, we would have had to change how we acted–suddenly it would no longer be enough just to TALK about changing.

        I’ve got many qualms about the younger generations (I turned 50 last year, so I’m now officially allowed to gripe about “these damn kids today”) but one thing I’ve gotta say in their favor: they’re all about ACTION. It’s no longer enough, in their eyes, for someone to sit and pat themselves on the back for being “a good person”–they actually expect people to DO something, to right wrongs, to fix what’s broken–or at least to TRY. I’m glad to see it, and I’m grateful for their example. (It’s almost enough to make me forgive their major flaws: their insistence on rebooting old TV shows and movie franchises, their fixation on the Marvel universe, and their bizarre eating habits. Almost.)

    4. Jerry, thank you for your ardent defense of blackface. You also make a really good point that an abled-bodied person would have a better capability of appearing to be disabled than a * checks notes * disabled person. Maybe if the disabled person tried harder to be disabled? Do you think that would help?

  3. Grant, I appreciate your cordial and well-spoken response. You make some good points. To the extent that discrimination is the reason for not casting a disabled person, I agree with your concern.

  4. #actuallyautistic person here. Thank you so much. Endlessly, thank you. Everyone needs to hear how harmful this film is.

    No more autistic deaths from restraint. It has to stop. We’re beyond exhausted. We don’t want to be killed anymore. We don’t want to have our identities treated as an insult anymore.

    Saying I’m pissed off doesn’t nearly cover it. I’m furious in my heart and my mind and my soul. I’ve felt actively suicidal for the first time in months because of this film, Sia’s harassment of autistic people, because of all the people defending her.

    Because of the autistic teenager who was suffocated to death by a police officer, because the officer used the same restraint method shown in this film. History says people will believe Sia’s ableist film and ignore how Eric was killed.

    So to everyone else…

    STOP KILLING AUTISTIC PEOPLE AND TREATING US LIKE BURDENSOME TRASH.

    1. Abominear, thank you for your comment. I hope you weather through this as best you can. I am so sorry to hear about you having suicidal thoughts. Get the support you need – hopefully you a network of friends or professionals that you can rely on. One day these kinds of films will pass, and everyone will look back on them with regret or disdain. Until then we’ve just got to keep up the fight.

  5. High functioning autist here, just wanted to stop by and let it be known that not all autistic folks are non-verbal, nor are we all good at counting matchsticks or programming computers. One day it can be hoped that not only will our movie storytelling not only move beyond the gross discrimination present here but also take on board that using more * extreme * examples of disability as the sole way to capture the attention of the able-bodied isn’t as helpful as many people seem to think it is.

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