Credit: Merrick Morton/Hanway Films
by Steven Warner Featured Film Horizon Line

Music | Sia

February 12, 2021

Music is a generic, offensive slog that co-opts ASD in service of bland musical pomp and an imbalanced plot.

Pop songstress Sia titling her directorial debut Music pretty much sums up the film as a whole: generic pap entirely devoid of depth or originality. It’s the equivalent of Bobby Flay making a movie and calling it Food. Music is indeed the name of a character within the film, a teenage girl suffering from severe autism, played by Sia’s music video muse Maddie Ziegler. Curious, then, that the story strands Music on the sidelines, instead choosing to focus on her sister, Zu (Kate Hudson), a recovering alcoholic, part-time drug dealer, and overall fuck-up who is forced to take care of her sibling after the death of their grandmother (Mary Kay Place, in a thankless role). Thus begins an oft-told tale of personal redemption, in which Zu — short for, dear God, Kazu — learns to get her shit together and become a better person. One would assume from this description that Music plays a crucial role in Zu’s transformation; one would be wrong. Much has been made in the press about Sia’s decision to cast a neurotypical actress in the title role (among other problematic plot developments), a topic which this review won’t wade into — a Google search will direct you to the detailed objections. A no less grievous problem is that the movie treats her like a prop, a mere excuse to showcase elaborate musical numbers that originate from Music’s head as both an escape and a coping mechanism. Sia has no interest in examining the struggles specific to this character or, more broadly, to individuals in the autistic community.  The amount of research that went into this seems limited to the absolute basics, the likes of which could be found in a Wikipedia article (it seems not unlikely that this is where Sia’s research began and ended): Music likes routine, and sometimes she has fits that conveniently work to advance the plot. Even her relationship with Zu is perversely underdeveloped; it tells us Zu learns to grow up and appreciate life again as a result of her time with Music, but we never see any evidence of such an evolution in the movie itself. Instead, the film is far more interested in Zu’s budding romance with neighbor Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.), who seems to be the catalyst for Zu’s change far more than Music.

It could be argued that one does not go to a movie named Music for the plot, but even there, the film fails more often than succeeds, as each musical number is fairly interchangeable: monochromatic sets highlight one candy-coated color; there are geometric shapes, oversized props, and elaborate costumes; and the choreography exists firmly in the realm of Sia’s “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” music videos, meaning a style of interpretive dance consisting of stiff, robotic movements and occasional balletic flourishes. The tunes themselves are reminiscent of every Sia that’s come before, meaning soulfully performed but utterly forgettable, each one bleeding into the next like an Ace of Base album on repeat. Sia’s directing style is equally bland, with jittery handheld camerawork capturing the real-world action and sweeping Steadicam for the musical sequences. The cast delivers uniformly solid work, with Hudson’s performance particularly committed despite not being able to fully sell her character’s rougher edges, while Odom Jr. does what he can with the little he’s given. Ziegler, for her part, is not tasked with giving a performance but seems only to be working her way through a checklist of diagnostic criteria. It’s a gross way to approach the material, but she is at least respectful as a performer, having worked with individuals on the autism spectrum for several months prior to filming — one wishes Sia herself had exhibited the same consideration. But what should one expect from a film that casts Ben Schwartz as a cornrowed drug dealer but gives him absolutely nothing to do, or which devotes 20 minutes of its runtime to a subplot that is nothing more than a retelling of Billy Elliot with some domestic violence thrown in? Not only does Music fail to sing, it fails to even carry a tune. Don’t quit your day job, Sia. [Note to editor: insert See-ya joke.]