I thought I knew what to expect when I sat down to watch Music. I am autistic, and the internet has been buzzing for months about the lack of care and research Sia seems to have put into her movie about a young autistic woman. I was expecting to be offended. Instead, I felt intense secondhand embarrassment, because Music is 107 minutes of unadulterated, unintentional cringe. I feel sorry for Maddie Ziegler, who plays the titular character. I feel sorry for Leslie Odom Jr., who I had assumed has more self-awareness than he apparently does. And despite Sia cursing out my community, the autistic community, on social media, I feel sorry for her too.
Earlier this month, Sia went on an Australian talk show, The Project, to talk about Music. She discussed how uncomfortable Maddie Ziegler felt playing Music early in the production. “She cried on the first day of rehearsals and she was really scared. She just said, ‘I don’t want anyone to think I’m making fun of them.’ ” It isn’t hard to see where Ziegler might have gotten that idea. In the first few minutes of Music, Ziegler grunts, hums, and hits herself. She thrusts her upper jaw forward into an exaggerated overbite. Then, the first musical number starts. Ziegler continues to twitch and lurch around, but this time with background dancers and bright yellow costumes.
I do not think Ziegler is making fun of anyone. However, a lack of malice does not reduce the acute discomfort of watching her clumsily ape disability. Ziegler is a teenager, and by reassuring her about her role in this movie, the adults in her life have failed her profoundly.
Autism is, technically, an invisible disability, but there is a physicality to it. Our bodies move in unusual ways. To be entirely fair to Ziegler, we do sometimes grunt, hum, twitch, lurch, and hit ourselves. I appreciate that she probably watched several YouTube videos while researching for the role. One of the major controversies around Music has been Ziegler’s casting, and the idea that Sia should have cast an autistic actress in the role instead. An autistic actress would, undoubtedly, have been able to deliver a performance that more accurately embodies autism.
But this would do nothing to address the biggest problem with Music. Music is not a film about autism, nor is it a film about an autistic person. Despite the movie’s eponymous title, Music, the character, is barely a person at all. She seems to exist for no reason other than steadily propelling her half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson) along a predictable redemption arc. Zu is a recovering alcoholic and small-time drug dealer who is forced to become Music’s caregiver when their grandmother dies. At first, she seems profoundly unfit for the job. Her grandmother left a book meticulously laying out Music’s daily schedule and needs, and Zu, upon learning there is no inheritance, reads none of it. Also, for some reason, school and child protective services do not exist. But don’t worry! Zu has a heart of gold.
To be fair to Zu, Music’s needs are unclear and seem to fluctuate based on whatever needs to happen to advance the plot. It doesn’t appear that Zu needs to do all that much for Music, beyond cooking breakfast and braiding her hair. Music dresses herself, brushes her own teeth, and walks from her home to the local library and back unattended every day. Most autism organizations across the ideological spectrum have denounced elements of the movie as not representative and unsafe, and I’m inclined to agree.
One notable exception: the National Council on Severe Autism. NCSA was founded by a handful of parents hostile to the idea of neurodiversity, a branch of the disability rights movement centered on the idea that cognitive disabilities like autism are normal parts of the human experience—essentially, it’s the idea that autistic people are different than our typical peers, not less. The parents of NCSA take issue with neurodiversity because they see their children’s autism as an affliction. NSCA chose to praise the movie’s decision to portray “severe autism” based purely on the fact that some autistic adults online were offended by the premise and movie trailer. Having actually seen it, I think they will be disappointed. The movie does not depict autism as “severe” in any sense. Music’s autism is unrecognizably sanitized, her life miraculously, dazzlingly easy. Music’s neighbors love and support her. People on the street wave to her, handing her free magazine clippings and fresh fruit. In case you were wondering, this is not how the world generally responds to autistic people, more or less across the spectrum.
And then there’s Ebo, played by Leslie Odom Jr. Ebo lives down the hall from Music and Zu. Ebo is from Ghana. He had an autistic brother at one point, but—as he strangely cheerfully informs Zu—his brother is dead. But it’s OK! You see, in his village, autism “was considered a curse.” What was his brother’s name? How old was his brother? What village? He never says, and we will never know. Ebo is a sort of magical autism whisperer, dropping into Zu’s life to teach Zu how to care. He has a job as a boxing instructor, but he mostly seems to spend his time instructing Zu about autism.
Some of his advice is just astonishingly terrible. At one point, Ebo coaches Zu on how to hold Music down after Music has a meltdown in a park. Zu gets on top of Music, pinning Music face down. This is called “prone restraint” and is a practice that has resulted in multiple deaths. After some outcry, Sia has apologized and said that the scenes will be removed from future versions of the film. But that the scene—as well as another in which Ebo, a grown man, climbs on top of a panicking autistic teenager as though that is an ordinary and even desirable way to respond to a meltdown—made it all the way from filming through postproduction apparently without anyone raising an eyebrow is exactly the problem. It’s a bizarre choice.
Music has a few moments of joy, almost by accident. Tig Notaro appears in an imaginary and whimsical children’s television broadcast that I would have happily watched for the full duration. I would have happily watched anything other than this Godforsaken musical. “Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it?” Sia tweeted in November, when outrage about the movie’s casting started to percolate. Well, I have watched the film, I am judging it, and it’s awful.