Sia is a phenomenal talent. Her artistry has captured a massive audience worldwide, from the escalating hooks in her songs to the incredible dance routines in music videos such as Chandelier and Elastic Heart. She has often been an enigma on the red carpet, blanketing her face with exaggerated bangs and even performing to the side of the stage as her frequent muse, dancer Maddie Ziegler, mesmerizes in routines that showcase jaw-dropping technique. The theatrics of Sia’s performances have elevated her songs and piqued our imaginations, which is why it was surprising that she was releasing a seemingly mainstream film.
Of course, a review of Music couldn’t deviate from the barrage of controversy that prefaced the film’s release. After casting two dancers on the spectrum in the lead role but who unfortunately had trouble with the immensity of the production, Sia cast Ziegler in the role of a girl with severe autism. The reaction, of course, has been divided and was amplified by Sia’s searing Twitter responses to concerned fans. Various institutions within the disability community have condemned the film, while others, like the National Council on Severe Autism, have praised the representation.
But the backlash, of course, preceded audiences even being able to view the film, and yet it was nominated for two Golden Globes, including best comedy/musical. Well, the HFPA had a lot of silly nominations this year (James Corden for The Prom? Really?).
Music is about Kazu (Kate Hudson), a newly sober young woman who receives news that she’s become the sole guardian of her half-sister named Music (Maddie Ziegler), who is on the autism spectrum.
The film is framed around Music’s imagination playing out in otherworldly, vibrantly colorful, and cheery performances that underscore how she sees the world. But the script by Dallas Clayton and Sia is at once a cheap device to infuse Sia’s Music and layer misery upon misery. To say this film is a missed opportunity is an understatement. At times, Sia’s direction evokes the tantalizing absurdness of a Michel Gondry film, but it’s hard to overlook the plot points that diminish the right intentions. Music is shrouded in controversy, but representation is only the beginning of its problems.
We are introduced to Music’s fantasy world from the get-go, with Sia singing, ‘Oh body, don’t fail me now. When she wakes, Music brushes her teeth, puts on her shoes, and her headphones seldom leave her ears, assisting with her auditory sensory sensitivity. Her grandma, Mary Kay Place, makes her two eggs with a large smiley face made from ketchup and braids her hair in a well-established routine. Music walks around the neighborhood daily, and as she passes stores, we see the wider community helping her along the way. One vendor hands her a watermelon slice and is paid by Felix (Beto Calville), an adopted, large teen who lives and works across the street from Music. Another vendor hands Music cutouts of dogs from magazines. The community adores and protects her. When she returns home, Grandma lies on the floor, unconscious from a stroke.
Kazu (Kate Hudson) is awoken at an AA meeting after everyone has gone. She gets a court-ordered signature from the group’s leader and asks how she can get a 90-day sober chip. The response? ‘You have to earn it.’ Well, Zu scoffs at the effort and receives a call that grandma has passed. She returns to the apartment she hasn’t visited in many years, and though she calls facilities to pick up Music, no one will help. When Zu reads grandma’s will, she realizes there is no money, but she left instructions on how to care for Music, who needs consistency. Fortunately, their boxing teacher neighbor Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.) is helpful when Zu lazily believes she doesn’t need to be on Music’s schedule. He helps Zu understand the enormity of the role.
There are some heartwarming moments in the film that indicate there was more to explore in the story. Zu starts to sell drugs from her dealer Rudy (a perfectly cast Ben Schwartz), and as she becomes more comfortable in the home, Ebo plays a piano tune written by Zu’s and Music’s mother. Kate Hudson performs the song with melancholy and sentimentality. Cinematographer Sebastian Winterø frames the scene with Music occupied in the background, Ebo sitting at the piano, and Zu, in the middle, leaning into her memories. It’s a lovely moment that intercepts an otherwise melodramatic plot.
We learn that Ebo has an illness and that his brother ran off with his wife; Felix lives in an abusive home; Zu is selling drugs and slipping into old habits; yet somehow, Music has everything she needs as though grandma were still alive. The lack of challenge and contextualizing the new environment shadows the film as Zu, in the second act, is dealing with things pretty darn well. The script seems to graze over more immediate concerns and makes everything too easy.
The artistry in the dance routines, however, is brilliant and over-the-top, and fantastical. Though the conceit doesn’t always work, and it seems the interludes in Music’s mind aren’t always motivated, the effort put into the vignettes is masterful. But it can’t overcome the script’s failings to fully capture the world in which Music lives and how she survives with her half-sister. Unfortunately, Zu accomplishes her drug deals quickly and is welcomed by everyone, and anyone, as the change in her lifestyle feels too simple.
Kate Hudson is fantastic, and her chemistry with Leslie Odom Jr. is palpable, but neither can save the film from its weak plot. Zeigler’s performance is realistic and moving, and though this role might’ve been cast with someone who is on the spectrum, she never falls into caricature or insult.
But Music is tonally confused and doesn’t capture a journey for this family. As Madonna sings, ‘Music makes the people come together,’ and I think we all wish it could have.