Shot 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.