The Issue with Sia’s film ‘Music’

So, I rented Sia’s new film Music on Youtube, even though I had read numerous tweets calling to boycott it and numerous reviews telling me not to waste my money. However, I wanted to form my own judgement on the film, without being influenced by other opinions. I’ve always loved Sia since watching her music video “Chandelier” and as a fan of Dance Moms as a teen, I also had an interest in the dancer Maddie Zeigler, who plays the character of ‘Music’ in the film. It’s no shock that Sia recently came into controversy yet again for her music videos “Elastic Heart”. Starring Maddie Zeigler and Shia LeBeouf (who is himself a walking controversy) it received mixed feedback and ratings, but also praise for Sia’s ‘out-there’ portrayal of a father-daughter relationship. Can Sia make a comeback after Music? It’s not looking good.

Music is a 2021 musical drama film directed by Sia, starring Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr. and Maddie Zeigler. It’s an exploration of identity through the character Zu, as she finds her half-sister Music, who is autistic. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the film, it was still nominated for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Drama; and Best Actress- Musical Comedy for Kate Hudson at the 78th Golden Globes.

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©Vertical Entertainment/Everett Collection

The plot follows a character who had no prior relationship with her half sister and didn’t want to care for Music once her guardian had passed away. Zu is in a state of flux in her life, reckless and hard-partying, she finds it difficult to understand or care for her half-sister. Ebo, the neighbour, comes to the rescue to help care for Music and teach Zu how to understand her, thus bringing all the characters to a greater sense of being and enlightenment in their own lives. If I could leave it there, that would be great. It’s a typically uplifting Hollywood story, with a few musical numbers thrown in for good measure. However, the real issue is its disastrous depiction of autism and its tone-deafness to the sensitivities of the autistic community.

Maddie Zeigler is a fantastic dancer, there’s no doubt about that. The musical numbers are colourful and brilliant, and the choreography is super, as always. Paired with Sia’s catchy music, they could be stand out music videos. It’s Zeigler’s performance that really is, well, a disaster. 

At the early stages of this project, it was announced that Sia would not cast an austistic performer, so it was already off to a dodgy start. Actors with special needs are already a minority group, why alienate them even further? For me, I questioned Zeigler’s ability to take on a role of this magnitude. New to the acting world, she has only starred in The Book of Henry and the animated film Ballerina, but nothing of this complexity and for any actor it would be a daunting task. According to IndieWire.ie; “Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that- excuses,” tweeted one user. “The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic. #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs”. To which, Sia responded “Maybe you are just a bad actor”. Well. Enough said. Sia’s lack of empathy in this work has been the driving force of the controversy.

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©Vertical Entertainment

Sia states “Watch the film before judging it”. Well, I did. The issue I have is that Sia seemed to go with a stereotype of autism, and what it’s like for someone living with autism. A great deal of thought has evidently gone into the design, choreography and writing, maybe it shouldn’t have stopped there? Those with autism, or those caring for friends or family with autism, felt undermined, misunderstood, and insulted by the performance of Zeigler as directed by Sia.

Guardian journalist Clem Bastow, who has autism himself, writes; “Autistic people are used to this, but somehow it’s still a shock to see it played out on the big screen: ah, yes, this is what people think of us. It’s especially upsetting when autistic characters with complex support needs, like Music, are presented as problems to be solved, at any cost.” 

It comes down to ethics and professionalism. Would it really have been so difficult for anyone on the project to properly research and present this sensitive subject? Instead, what we get is an inaccurate depiction bordering on caricature. Another huge issue with the film is the scene in which Music is physically restrained. This is dangerous and has killed numerous people in the past. It’s not a solution. If controversy was already following this movie from the get-go, it certainly ramped up following its release. 

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network state “Ultimately, what we are saying when we say “person with autism” is that the person would be better off if not Autistic, and that it would have been better if he or she had been born typical.” Sia stated that a person who is non-vocal is basically like an ‘inanimate object’ and that she gave them ‘a voice’. How could this dehumanising description possibly be right? They are human beings with their own ways of communicating and understanding. It was also pointed out to me by Youtuber Paige Layle that Sia used terms ‘high-functioning’ and ‘low-functioning’ which are widely criticised and tell you nothing about the human being. Layle also questions Sia’s ‘three years research’, given the film’s insulting and poor representation. Many have also said that the stereotypical portrayal by Ziegler reminded them of their experiences with bullying and how they were mocked. It was said that Zeigler found the role extremely difficult and was concerned that people would believe she was mocking the community. 

Sia has now apologised for misrepresenting the autistic community, stating “I listened to the wrong people and that is my responsibility, my research was not thorough enough, not wide enough, I’m sorry”. She then went on to delete her entire Twitter account. She has also decided to remove those scenes of restraint from future releases of the film and issued a trigger warning with the film itself. Is this enough? It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Sia, and how the controversy affects her future career.

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About the author

KathyAnn Murphy

KathyAnn is a playwright, theatre and film designer and director from Co. Wicklow. She holds an MA in Theatre Practise and a BA in Design for Stage and Screen. She is a third level tutor, drama teacher and is currently studying a Diploma in Irish Studies. KathyAnn has a great interest in the arts, social justice, history and music.

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