I am autistic and I am tired.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was 8 years old. Although I have always had a love of film, it was not until my late teens when I really started to take notice of just how badly people on the autism spectrum were being misrepresented onscreen. Everyone’s experience of living with ASD is different, hence why it is a spectrum, but film and television have never presented it as a spectrum but rather two extremes. The most baffling representation in recent years that literally made my jaw drop was 2018’s The Predator where the dreadlocked alien is hunting down Jacob Tremblay’s character because autism is supposedly “the next step in human evolution”. I didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically or destroy every copy of the film in existence.
You sometimes get the rare portrayal that is complex, nuanced, and, most importantly, accurate that (most of the time) is not explicitly about autism, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s films Punch-Drunk Love or Phantom Thread. But for every one of those, there are 50 Rain Men and 50 Sheldon Coopers; incredibly intelligent savants whose genius is glorified, but their emotional outbursts and social ineptitude are used to make them a vacuum of pity or mere comic relief. Then there are portrayals like dancer turned actress Maddie Ziegler’s titular role in Grammy award-winning artist Sia’s first foray into moviemaking, Music, that proves that Hollywood still has miles (scrap that, lightyears) to go in terms of representation of people on the autism spectrum.
When the trailer of the film was released back in November, a firestorm of backlash was rightfully thrown towards Sia for several reasons. The casting of a neurotypical actress as a non-verbal autistic character, the lack of involvement from people on the spectrum, and the fact she consulted with Autism Speaks (a controversial non-profit that believes autism is a disease that can ‘cured’) on the film all raised some alarming red flags. Sia’s response to this very valid criticism from the community she is supposedly trying to promote and empower (which included responding to an autistic actor who said they could have acted in the film on short notice with, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor”) only made matters worse. Even in her subsequent non-apology, Sia used the outdated and harmful term ‘functioning’ to describe non-verbal autistic people and also implied they are incapable of using the internet by saying they “can’t get on Twitter and tell me I did a good job”.
Given Sia’s aggressive doubling down on her insensitive and problematic comments, it is impossible to believe her claim that she did three years of research into ASD in preparation for the film (or any of her other dubious claims for that matter). And even if she did, I am incredibly skeptical of her sources and definitely question their validity. Because Music is not just a deeply offensive and terribly made vanity project with a misguided moral compass, it’s also a $16 million exercise in massaging Sia’s colossal ego and savior complex that is now so big, moons will soon be entering its orbit.
After the first of many pointless music video dance numbers, the film opens on Music (yes, that really is the character’s name) going through her daily life. She lives with her loving and caring grandmother who always entertains her by dispensing wisdom via fun facts on popsicle sticks while braiding her hair. Music returns home from her daily trip to the library one day to discover her grandmother has died of a heart attack. Music is now put into the care of her estranged older half-sister, Zu (a buzz cut rocking Kate Hudson), a recovering drug addict on probation and struggling with sobriety. Zu can barely take care of herself — let alone her autistic half-sister — and cannot handle the responsibilities of guardianship, so she enlists the help of her neighbor Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.). Along this journey, the film explores love, kindness, empathy, the tenuous bonds that hold us together, or whatever bullshit faux-inspirational claptrap Sia thinks she is preaching here.
Almost immediately, Music stumbles directly into the biggest pitfall that films about autism have; it’s not actually about autism. Music is not a character in this film. You think she would be because to quote Beanie Feldstein’s character in Lady Bird: “It’s the titular role!” But Music is less of a character and more of a hot potato plot device that is thrown between characters in this film to help them on their own personal journeys of becoming better people. Whenever she is not being used as a tool for the characters in this film to appear saintly and righteous, Music is shown to be a heavy, uncontrollable burden and making Zu’s life incredibly difficult. The most egregious example of this is when Music has an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting and is rushed to a hospital, but that conflict is immediately resolved and is given almost no time. The drama Sia felt was more important to focus on in this scene was not Zu’s negligence that almost got Music killed, but instead Zu frantically trying to find her bag of painkillers she lost in the rush to help Music. It’s revolting that the tropes of autism as something that is either whimsical or detrimental to the lives of others rears its ugly head once again in this film. It belittles and disempowers the very community Sia thinks she is celebrating, especially since the film gives no insight into how autism affects Music herself.
But then again, perhaps focusing more on Music would have given us more of Maddie Ziegler’s embarrassingly awful and offensive performance. Ziegler is clearly Sia’s muse and has appeared in a number of her music videos since she was 12 years old. Sia has stated Ziegler is like family, even going as far as claiming the casting of Ziegler is “not ableism, but nepotism” in an interview with the Australian news program The Sunday Project. She later said, “I can’t do a project without her, I don’t want to. I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her”. Sia using Ziegler as her puppet to fulfill her hubristic creative vision as an excuse for her brazen carelessness and ignorance by excluding people on the autism spectrum from a film that is supposedly made for us makes my stomach churn. Ziegler clearly had reservations about the role and really did not want her portrayal to come across as offensive. But any neurotypical or able-bodied actor (particularly one with limited acting experience like Ziegler) playing a character with autism or another developmental or physical disability is always going to be a mockery or caricature, no matter how good the intentions are.
Ziegler’s woeful performance is another reason why marginalized communities should never be excluded from their own narratives and that proper representation matters in all forms of media. The performance ridicules people with ASD and suggests autism equates to constantly having your starry, twinkly eyes wide open and your mouth always agape, making a lot of odd noises, moving jaggedly, and hitting yourself in the head a lot — it’s very upsetting to witness. I almost feel sorry for Ziegler for being made to play this role, but then again, she still went through with it when she easily could have stepped aside. Sia says she originally cast a young non-verbal autistic girl as Music that pulled out because she found the project “unpleasant and stressful”, but with the knowledge of this, The Project interview along with her interview in the productions notes where she says she wrote the role specifically with Ziegler in mind really contradicts that statement.
But if she really did cast this young autistic actress, it is no wonder she found the project unpleasant because Music has a fundamental misunderstanding of what autism is (so much for the three years of research). It is not just Ziegler’s performance or Music‘s characterization (or lack thereof) that is derogatory, the film features not one, but two incredibly distressing and harmful depictions of Music being physically restrained during a meltdown, which in case you are wondering should NEVER be done in that situation. Hudson and Odom Jr.’s characters at different points in the film forcibly grab Music when she is having either an emotional meltdown or a sensory overload in public and then lays on her back, her arms held to her side and head pressed against the ground until she stops screaming and resisting the pressure. Music was not behaving violently or aggressively, she was just upset. It is shockingly irresponsible for this film to depict a prone restraint, a dangerously unsafe and traumatic method that has caused numerous injuries and even deaths of autistic children as the only way to calm Music down. If that wasn’t bad enough, it is described by Odom Jr.’s character as “crushing her with my love” which is too much flagrant ignorance and borderline psychopathy from Sia for me to even begin to explain just how malicious, hurtful, and wrong it is. The real-world consequences that such a depiction could have is deeply worrying.
Putting all of Sia’s ghastly and horrifically ableist tendencies aside, Music is still such a sloppy, amateurish, and straight-up badly put-together film. Sia does not have the slightest grasp on how to tell a story as the film is littered with empty subplots it keeps cutting away to that go nowhere. Especially an extremely exploitative one with an across the street neighbor of Music who is also one of Odom Jr.’s students in his boxing class. Sia keeps cutting to this subplot as if he will play a major part towards the end of the film, but the direction this subplot takes veering into a story of domestic violence that has zero relevance to the main story is just pure manipulation and exploitation.
Even the film’s main attraction — its loud bombastic musical numbers with people in ridiculous costumes prancing around a soundstage that are meant to inspire joy, wonder, and amazement — instead only inspires apoplectic rage. Of course, Ziegler is a talented dancer and in isolation, these sequences could work as individual music videos. But in the context of Music, they all feel like completely vacuous and empty spectacles that do nothing to give any insight into the characters or to further the story in any meaningful or interesting way. It’s the cinematic equivalent of dangling a pair of shiny car keys in front of an infant’s face and was very reminiscent of the appalling 2017 musical The Greatest Showman. Both films feel like every single overblown musical number is just a weak distraction from how vapid, soulless, and covertly sinister the film is, masquerading as a feel-good family-friendly burst of euphoric inspiration, when it is actually so foul and rotten at its core, dehumanizing and humiliating the communities it claims to be uplifting.
Sia’s limitless self-aggrandizing narcissism can best be encapsulated by her infuriating cameo in the film. Zu arrives at a photoshoot to sell her Percocet and other painkillers to a secretive customer, who is revealed to be the grammy award-winning pop star and director of the film, playing herself. In what I thought was going to lead to a funny, potentially self-deprecating cameo where Sia might show the slightest shred of self-awareness turns quickly into savior complex wankery. In case the audience wasn’t already suffering a mild concussion from how much Sia is beating them over the head with just how angelic and selfless she thinks she is by making this movie, she buys the drugs, not for recreational use but to send to Haitian earthquake victims that are dangerously low on medication. She really couldn’t help herself. The audacity of Sia to put herself on such a pedestal as an infallible image of moral superiority in the midst of this crass, infantile, ableist shitshow she is orchestrating is one of the most insulting and sadistic acts of artistic narcissism to ever be committed to celluloid and it made me sick to my stomach.
As both a film critic and someone on the autism spectrum who was disgusted, enraged, and offended by this cruel and hateful exploitation of the autistic community being passed off as ‘entertainment’, I beg you, please do not see Music. Let it tank. Make an example of this film to demand real, authentic representation of people on the autism spectrum. Taking the film at face value, it is incoherent and incompetently made with terrible songs that are completely devoid of any joy. But underneath the thinly veiled, glossy bubblegum pop music video sheen lurks something that is so much more sinister and evil. We are not things for you to play around with and objectify for you to feel better about yourself and satisfy your hostile little ego trip, Sia. We are real people and we are speaking up, so you better be listening. Anyone that claims to be making something out of love and respect for people with ASD would never, ever make something this irresponsibly misinformed and this dangerous and damaging to the autistic community.
We deserve so much better than this grotesque monstrosity.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Music? Comment down below!
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