Sia’s “Music”: A sour note for autism representation

Sias “Music” movie poster

Sia’s “Music” movie poster

The leadup to Sia’s “Music” movie was a rocky one, to say the least. For the past four months, Sia has faced a string of controversies regarding her upcoming film. Incidents included the casting of neuronormative Maddie Ziegler as the titular neurodivergent Music, leaked prone restraint scenes and Sia’s backlash towards the widespread criticism she received from the autism community—there was a lot to deal with.

This review is from the perspective of someone diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and it will be a severely negative one. After giving the film a chance despite all the controversy it garnered, it’s safe to call this an absolute travesty. When Sia, the director and co-writer, had to retroactively issue content warnings and promise to take down the multiple prone restraint scenes the film had, you know we’re in for trouble.

While this film was supposedly about its titular main character and about depicting autism, that’s not actually the case. Music is more of a plot device and deuteragonist in her own movie. The film is actually about Music’s troubled step-sister Zu (ugh) struggling to take care of Music as her romance blooms with apartment neighbor Ebo. 

It’s more than a little galling to find that after opening on one of Music’s music-video-style dreams and showing her daily life before the passing of her grandmother, she’s reduced to an agency-free, mute token instead of a character with dynamics and serious exploration. Instead, all of the major subplots, character dynamics and arcs go to the people taking care of her.

Giving all of the subplots and character arcs to the supporting cast would not be a problem if the main character was the lynchpin for everyone’s development, or if the film was even remotely cohesive. Unfortunately, we’re talking about “Music” so you know none of that is present here. Plot points such as Ebo’s dwindling medication he needs for survival are effectively dropped. Some, such as the wedding Ebo has to attend, are introduced halfway through only to get lost in the shuffle of all of his other subplots before becoming relevant again 40 minutes later. 

There are even points that get introduced, only to be changed, like with the character of Felix. At the start, it seems like helping Music’s daily walking routine causes him to be late for his family’s job. Then, he’s boxing despite not fitting in, possibly in order to prove something. In the third act, it turns out that his parents, who we only saw for about 20 seconds across three scenes, are in an abusive relationship where the seemingly disappointed father verbally and physically assaults his wife. None of this feels well-planned or cohesive.

As if the poor juggling of plot points wasn’t enough, we have the film’s nine musical numbers, 10 if you count the beginning of the end credits. Normally you’d want your musical numbers in your musical to actually integrate with the scene, help characterize someone, advance the plot or do anything other than come off as filler or a non-sequitur. The film is 107 minutes long, and given that not even half of these sequences actually accompany any sequences or plot points, the film would be the length of a TV movie without all the padding. These sequences are just excuses for Sia to put some of her pop songs into a film soundtrack, as the movie barely explores Music’s imagination beyond these largely low-budget music videos.

There isn’t much to touch on regarding Music herself when the film barely does anything to show her perspective. The first time we actually get to see anything from her vivid perspective on reality, barring daydreaming music video sequences and one inexplicable flashback as she sees her dead grandmother taken away, happens 40 minutes in. In said scene, Music brushes some leaves with her feet, imagining gold dust being kicked around in a circle. This is also the second scene in which she has a meltdown and someone has to perform prone restraint.

Prone restraint is the act of pinning someone with autism to the ground, face-down, in order to calm them down from their meltdown. It’s a violent, traumatizing and sometimes lethal way of calming a disabled person down, and the film showcases this dangerous method as a necessary tool… thrice! Considering that Music barely gets to interact with or directly influence anyone beyond simply existing as someone to be taken care of due to her severe, crippling autism, that’s not a very good look.

It’s incredibly easy to see why anyone with autism or anyone who cares about people who have it found this film frustrating at best, and appalling at worst. Considering that we don’t have a lot of worthwhile representation in film and television, the sheer magnitude of this movie’s awful decision-making cannot be understated. On its own, the film is boring, scattershot and cloyingly saccharine, but its failure to portray autism in a tactful, inspiring or remotely compelling manner further cements “Music” as a discomforting dumpster fire to be avoided at all costs!

Also, there’s a plotline where Sia herself tasks Zu with giving her smuggled meds to donate towards Haitian children following an earthquake. The sheer scope of repugnance and offensiveness this sorry excuse for a vanity project achieves goes so much deeper, but to avoid spoilers and potentially dragging this review out further, let’s just call it here.

Perhaps it’s poor decorum to suggest Sia should stick to what she’s famous for. However, if she plans on advancing her film career in the future, then hopefully she either takes significant steps to make sure that the next touchy subject she covers is handled with the utmost tact and care, or preferably, she never tries something like this again.