‘Music’ by Sia hits all the wrong notes

Junior Brooke Goldman, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 14, reviews Sia’s film ‘Music,’ detailing how Sia let down the autistic community.

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Sia’s latest venture in filmmaking, ‘Music,’ dropped on Feb. 10, 2021, and it’s a lot.

The film started making waves when its trailer was dropped in late December, quickly stirring up controversy for its gross misrepresentation of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) community. 

From hiring a neurotypical actress to play someone on the spectrum to triggering scenes bound to upset anyone actually on the spectrum, Sia really dropped the ball when it came to representing life with ASD. But in the name of journalistic integrity, I tried to go into the movie with an open mind.

The film opens with the introduction of a young, non-verbal autistic girl named Music (portrayed by Maddie Ziegler). We see her waking up, and then the screen rapidly transforms into a flashy music number with little warning. As the number ends, the focus turns back to Music and her morning routine. But not even 10 minutes into the film, a death in the family leaves Music in the care of her estranged and alcoholic half-sister Zu. Music is quickly reduced to a background character, as the focus shifts to Zu’s problems, including her budding attraction to the typical boy next door, Ebo (portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr.)   

What follows is a whirlwind of dark plotlines that barely flow together, interrupted at inappropriate times by flashy dance numbers set to the music of Sia. Some notable offenders include drug dealers, AIDS, a weird self insert scene with Sia complaining about Doctors Without Borders, and dance numbers that at times carried racist undertones. Simply put, the movie just isn’t good. It tries to jam way too many serious topics into way too little time, and the dance sequences resemble what I imagine a fever dream feels like. 

Beyond the confusing and weirdly dark plotlines, the cinematography itself isn’t that great, and Sia’s music is nothing special. The camera is very shaky for the entirety of the movie, and the set, lighting and background music rarely contribute anything to the film. As for the music, it was catchy enough, but writing this review less than an hour after I watched the movie, I can’t recall a single tune or lyric from any of the songs. They’re forgettable at best, disappointing and embarrassing at worst as Sia is objectively a very talented musician, whose skills are not represented one bit by the film.

But the movie being bad is hardly what upsets me. What I’m so hung up on is just how ableist the film is. The ASD community has long faced harm in the hands of Hollywood. Instead of representation, we get exaggerated caricatures that barely skim the surface of what life with autism is really like. Autism is a spectrum, with everyone affected being extremely unique. But Hollywood never shows this. They just use the same offensive caricature every time, which has led to a dangerous stigma surrounding what it’s like to be autistic. 

When people hear the word autistic, their mind often goes to a person with no ability to socialize, rarely ever speaking and detached from reality. But in real life, that couldn’t be more wrong. Autism is just another way of looking at life, due to the fact that the chemicals in our minds are different. Each person with ASD is impacted in a unique way, some more than others. So while Music’s exaggerated tics and frequent meltdowns are definitely parts of being autistic, these tics and meltdowns will rarely will look exactly like how Ziegler portrays them. No two people in the ASD community are alike, and we embrace this. But by continuing to portray autistic characters with the same exaggerated characteristics, this narrative gets erased. 

Every autistic person has sensory issues, which makes taking in the world harder for us. These sensory issues are what cause the tics and meltdowns, and I will admit there is a brief moment in the film when Leslie Odom Jr.’s character touches upon this with eloquence. I will also say the film also does an impressive job of depicting some of the smaller details of life as an autistic person, like how Music walks on her toes, which is very common in autistic children (something I personally did for 12 years of my life). It also does a good job showing off a part of autistic life called “special interests,” a characteristic of autism that involves intense focus and knowledge on particular topics. In the film, Music has a consuming interest in dogs, which made me feel seen in a small way as I am very much the same, but with frogs instead of dogs. 

But unfortunately, these tiny successes in representation do little good, as the film did much more harm than anything. The issues started before the film even dropped. When the trailer was released, people were quick to notice that the actress portraying the autistic character was not autistic. It’s impossible for a non-autistic actor to play an autistic character without the character appearing as a caricature. Autism goes beyond external characteristics, and any attempt to translate that to screen with a non-autistic actor falls flat. Life as an autistic person is very different from life as a non-autistic person. We experience life in a very different way, an experience that can’t be properly represented by someone who hasn’t lived through it. When called out, Sia responded by saying that she tried to work with an autistic girl, but the environment wasn’t right, which to many, like me, felt like a lazy excuse. If the environment isn’t right, that means there’s a need for change. Sia could have easily worked with the young girl to make Hollywood a better place for autistic actors, but she didn’t. 

 In addition, while promoting the film, Sia claimed to have done research for years. However, she was simultaneously working with Autism Speaks, a problematic foundation resented by the autistic community for the harm they have done. The foundation is known for portraying people with autism as monsters who destroy their family, largely ignoring the differences between males and females with autism, promoting cures and eugenics, misusing funds, among other practices that are far more ableist than helpful. If Sia had truly done any research, she would have known this. 

As for the film itself, it’s quite problematic. The film was supposed to bring awareness to autism, but is very hard for someone with autism to actually watch. The shaky camera and bright flashy dance numbers are a sensory overload waiting to happen, and no warning was given. 

Then there was the depiction of the use of prone restraint. Prone restraint is the act of physically restraining someone by sitting on them as they are lying face down on the floor, and has long been used as a method of stopping autistic meltdowns. This type of restraint is extremely dangerous and has caused many autistic deaths in frequent years. It’s an upsetting scene for anyone to see, but as an autistic female myself it was treacherous. The first time I saw the scene after it was leaked on twitter, I experienced a lengthy panic attack, and seeing it a second time wasn’t much better. And that wasn’t the only trigger. 

People on the spectrum often experience other mental health issues, and many autistic people often struggle with depression. The film was quite dark with depiction of multiple on screen deaths, alcohol abuse and suicide, all of which are very common triggers for those who are depressed. The lack of any warning for anyone going into the film is extremely careless and dangerous. 

The final issue lies in the plot itself. While the movie opens with Music as the focus, she quickly becomes a background character, with no independent plot line. She seems to only exist as a plot tool to make the audience feel bad for her sister. When the audience starts to feel bad for the sister, they begin to view Music as a burden, which only adds to the stigma around autism. 

But we are not burdens. We are intelligent, creative, unique individuals who live a life that few understand. This film, like many others, had a chance to bring awareness to this, to help destroy the dangerous stigma that has been harming the ASD community for years, but once again, Hollywood let us down.

But our community won’t stay quiet. We will continue to scream and fight and push toward a better world, one where we are viewed not as odd or strange or difficult, but just as different. Because when it comes down to it, that’s all we’ve ever wanted.