Music – Movie Review
Directed by: Sia
Written by: Sia & Dallas Clayton
Starring: Kate Hudson, Maddie Ziegler & Leslie Odom Jr.
Cinematography: Sebastian Winterø
Music: Sia, Labyrinth & Craig DeLeon
Release Date: February 15th 2021
It’s hard to have an objective discussion about the film ‘Music‘ on its own merits (or lack thereof) without getting into its pre-release controversies. Whether it was the problematic casting decision to have a Neurotypical actor play the autistic lead, director Sia’s admittance of removing a prior autistic cast member, her work with the Autism Speaks hate-group, allegations of black-face and more. These stories have over-whelmed the discussion to such an extent that it’s easy to forget that there’s an actual movie at the centre of it.
And that movie is ‘Music‘, a musical that marks artist Sia’s directorial debut. Sia, after finding huge success writing for artists like David Guetta and Rihanna broke out as a solo artist with her song “Chandelier” which also had a music video starring ‘Dance Moms‘ star Maddie Ziegler; whom Sia now pledges to involve in all of her projects. The “Chandelier” music video was also co-directed by Sia and shot by Sebastian Winterø who reunited for ‘Music‘. While that creative team who have made some stellar music videos in the past seems ideal for a feature-length musical, the end result is an intense error-of-judgement for everyone involved and reads as nothing more than an expensive vanity project for Sia.
Kazu (or “Zu”, played by Hudson) is an alcoholic drug-dealer on probation who finds her life up-ended by becoming the guardian of the only family she has left; an autistic half-sister named Music (Ziegler) whose grandmother has just died. Zu starts looking after Music with the help of her neighbour Ebo (Odom Jr.) while she can try and sell the late-grandmother’s belongings and deal more drugs to fund a getaway to Costa Rica after giving responsibility for Music to somebody else.
The first massive story-issue with ‘Music‘ is that it has nothing to do with Music herself. Rather, the story revolves around Zu played by an astonishingly miscast Kate Hudson who makes the least convincing drug dealer in recent memory. A buzzcut and tank-tops with witty slogans do not make a character and that doesn’t even approach the issue as to why the state would hand custody of an autistic child with special requirements over to a distant relative on probation.
But the issues stem way deeper than just casting and conception as Zu is intensely unlikeable. From her treatment of Music, to her snarky attitude that’s not witty or even begrudgingly likeable. No, she’s just mean and unpleasant to be around which isn’t helped by her having no viewable backstory or context prior to the events of the film meaning that the arc she undergoes in ‘Music‘ isn’t informed by anything and the audience have nothing to work with. It also means that when she does start changing and becoming nicer throughout the film, it doesn’t feel legitimate and it just feels like she’s becoming better because…that’s how the film is meant to go.
Her change is also supposed to be influence by Ebo (who absolutely falls into the “Magical Negro” archetype) but because he’s got nothing going on as a character other than “nice guy” it doesn’t ring true. This also extends to a handful of other supporting players who get their own sub-plots which never directly relate to Zu or Music and just feel like padding or potential 5-minute music video material that went un-used by Sia and just winds up in ‘Music‘ for some reason.
Which brings us to the character of Music who, casting issues aside, is just a plot device allowing Zu to become a better person. Music is basically a prop; she’s a character with no character, no traits, no arc, no motivation, she’s just the inciting incident and an obstacle for Zu to overcome and to motivate many of the film’s musical set-pieces. ‘Music‘ is not about Music and considering that so much of the controversy revolves around a superfluous element of the movie boggles the brain.
Maddie Ziegler’s performance is hard to read as anything other than a caricature, or as a mocking impression of what a neurotypical person thinks an autistic person acts like. The first 15-20 minutes of the movie (where Music is most prominently featured before dropping off the face of the Earth) are intensely uncomfortable viewing. While there is potential merit to the idea of casting a dancer in an intensely physical role, it’s clear that Maddie’s talents as a performer have been aimed in entirely the wrong direction by Sia; whom has opened up about her desire to have Maddie involved as part of their intensely uncomfortable private relationship.
There’s also the film’s frequent use of restraint as a way to stop Music’s meltdowns which is not only an incredibly harmful thing to do, but is framed in ‘Music‘ as a caring and loving thing (Ebo describes it as “crushing her with [his] love” which is…all kinds of messed up). Many autistic people having episodes have died due to having that kind of restraint and while Sia promised that there would be a pre-titles warning and that the restraint scenes would be removed, at time of writing (February 25th, 10 days after the film’s release) they’re still present with no warning.
Music’s main role in the film is to motivate the frequent music videos which are entirely fantasy-based and are separate from the rest of the story. The film’s pacing screeches to a halt everytime this happens and while some of them are decent in their own bubble removed from context (“1+1” is a fun pop jingle) the vast majority of them read as redundant. That’s not even getting into the actual content of the videos themselves. If it wasn’t for the adults on set or the production values, you’d be forgiven for thinking these were GCSE-level dance numbers due to the sledge-hammer symbolism and repetitive choreography.
The biggest offender has Leslie Odom Jr. coming out of a coffin, only for the stage to light up revealing he was actually laying in a Holy Bible as the music dramatically swells which is, objectively, very very funny. Especially when contrasted with him walking on a tread-mill in clown-sized dungarees.
No, I did not make a word of that up.
While Sia has said that she made this movie for the Autistic Community, these loud music videos are full of strobing lights, bright colours and dizzying patterns. There’s one musical set-piece which takes place in a square room where the floor, ceiling, props and even the actor’s costumes have the same floral print. As the camera whizzes around the room, the sensory over-load for someone without autism was quite intense so it’s hard to imagine how someone on the spectrum would react. It’s difficult to comprehend the thought process of Sia wanting to make a movie for the autistic community that the autistic community literally cannot watch.
But the strangest part is, while these music videos are initially explained as how Music sees the world and her unique viewpoint (a viewpoint that’s one-note, sterile and only exists to interrupt the movie every 10 minutes which is…interesting) but later on Zu and Ebo start instigating these fantasy set-pieces as well, which undermines the whole conceit.
There’s just an awful lot wrong with this awful movie, whether it’s the terrible dialogue, the flat visuals/direction whenever pop-music isn’t playing, a strangely out-of-place Ben Schwartz as a drug dealer as well as an ending that’s not remotely earned in any respect. Oh, as well as Sia casting herself as an impossibly brilliant Mary Sue popstar who does charity work.
And that last sentence explains so much about ‘Music‘s existence. It’s a nepotism fuelled vanity project. It’s a vehicle for artsy music videos and a “Music inspired by ‘Music‘” album that throws in an autistic child and “magical negro” in for brownie points and potential awards-success (and sometimes both at the same time as Music is caked in skin-darkening make-up in the film’s opening number which draws allusions to black-face). ‘Music‘ is tone-deaf, unpleasant with mis-cast leads, a baffling story and everything that could have gone wrong with the conception of this film went wrong.
Yes, Sia should have cast an autistic actor in the role of Music. Obviously. But even taking a step back from that issue, it wouldn’t even come close to fixing the vast majority of the problems with ‘Music‘. It’s ego run amok and careers have been ended on films not nearly as bad and as poorly-judged as this.
I give ‘Music‘ half a star out of 5.
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Posted: 26th Feb 21