Sia’s ‘Music’ proves an tedious display of ableism and ignorance – An Atypical Review

Although I try, as a critic and commentator, to remain neutral on a piece of media before the experience, I and many other people in the autisitc community were angry at ‘Music’ and Sia months before release date. The issues started with some autistic people making some very good faith critiques about Sia casting a neurotypical actress, Maddie Ziegler, in the role of a non-verbal autistic character named Music. In the process of responding to those tweets she called autisitc people bad actors, said that she tried to cast a non-verbal autistic actress despite previously saying in 2017 that she wrote the role specifically for Maddie and tacitly acknowledged that she hadn’t tried to make the environment more accessible in the process. When asked later whether she thought she was being ableist she replied “Well, it is ableism but it’s actually nepotism, because I couldn’t do a project without Maddie” – So….hang on….are we saying that ableism is just fine now?

Perhaps that perspective came from working with Autism Speaks – an organization who put the majority of thier resources into finding cures for what they see as an affliction. The popstar turned budding director claims she did three years of research into this subject, and yet she didn’t know that to most people on the spectrum, autism speaks equals bad? Woe to those who press play. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to seeing this. However, I felt that if my review could stop one person from seeing this movie, then it would be worth sitting through. ‘Grrrrrrr. Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY’ Sia tweeted early on, in response to critics. Well Sia, I’ve seen your movie. Its terrible.

Indeed, this movie isn’t just terrible. Its offensively, patronizingly, terrible. Its’s the cinematic equivalent of every person who’s ever looked at you pityingly when they say that your autistic. It observes without understanding. This is apparent when in one of the movies many phoney postcard- inspirational attempts to pull on the viewers heartstrings, two of the main characters entrusted to care for Music – Zu and Ebo – walk behind her in the park, and comment on how her autism means she can apparently hear whispering from three rooms away, which…uh….no. If this seems a baffling indictment of the kind of ‘magical thinking’ idea of autism, that guides many of Sia’s directorial decisions, including the sensory-overload inducing dance routines that pepper this film, that’s because this movie is not for autistic people at all.

‘Music’ tells the story of Kazu “Zu” Gamble (Kate Hudson) – the lead characters drug dealing sister, struggling to stay sober. In true rain man form, the autistic girl becomes a cynical plot device to help the protagonist achieve her goals of getting her life together, and be with the kindly neighbor ‘Ebo’ (Leslie Odom Jr.) As well as bein a redemption narrative for a neurotypical characters, its also a vain mercy device for Sia who has a cameo in this movie to talk about a fabricated charity venture named ‘popstars without borders’. What autistic people are supposed to get from any of this, is unclear. The whole piece reeks of a ill-informed attempt to pander to some neurotypicals desire to feel good about themselves, while allowing Sia to give herself a pat on the back for being such a good saviour of the autistic and disabled, who she evidently dosent believe have any agency of thier own. In one particularly revealing interview leading up to this film being released, the interviewer compared non-verbal autisitc people to inanimate objects to which Sia nodded and smiled. Did I mention that Autism Speaks was involved here?

From the moment this film starts, you get an extremely offensive caricature of autisitc people as Ziegler dances through a labyrinth of flashing light while contorting her facial expressions, flailing her arms and making exaggerated movements. I remind you that there are plenty of autistic actors Sia could have picked in making this movie, who may not have so easily slipped into the kind of ableist tropes Ziegler does here. In defending her movie, Sia recalled how Maddie became quite emotional at the possibility that she could be taking the mick out of autistic people. For reference, I am not about to go after an 18 year old actress for doing something that she was told to do, but I can’t say she wasn’t right to be worried. This performance is a caricature of autistic ‘stimming’ and is deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerisms people employ when bullying autistic people for the ways we behave. I find these stim activities deeply comforting, as they lend a sense of stability to my world. However, I have believed in the past that there must be something wrong with the way I move, due to bullying and imitation by neurotypicals. Watching this deeply insensitive, tone deaf embarrassment of a film makes for an infantilizing and dehumanizing experience. I won’t link to the trailer, but here is a tweet from autistic advocacy account, the autisticats:

None of this is helped by the flow of the film. The entire thing feels messy and scattered, like narrative cohesion was an afterthought rather than a guiding principle. Characters fall out and then make up, in fake attempts to inject drama into what is otherwise a lifeless and deeply tedious script. Nearly all of the dialogue is hackneyed, feeling torn from a scrapbook of generic song lyrics, a la – “I used to think I knew what love was, now I’m not so sure”. There’s an odd subplot about a non-speaking neighbor of Music and Zu who’s verbally abused by his parents, and ends up getting killed after stepping into a fierce altercation between his mum and his dad, just after buying a pet dog for Music. Why does this subplot exist? Who is this character? What is this entire section of the movie intended to achieve? In yet another display of pointless mockery, Ziegler’s character makes lots of noise in the hallway of the apartment building where she lives, provoking the ire of a very angry neighbor who responds by calling the police – a movie event that goes absolutely nowhere. Lot’s of debate has been had as to whether the dance sequences or the actual movie are preferable – a conflict I wrestled with, as I found myself wanting one type of scene to end as the other began. Worst of all, I feel the musical breaks could have worked had some serious consideration been put into them beyond the desire to visually wow the viewer, and if they were accompanied by a much more coherent film, to give them context.

This brings me to something I’ve been avoiding thus far. Let’s talk about the restraint scenes. Prone restraint is more often than not, a form of abuse directed against autistic people which can result in injury or death. Here its portrayed twice after ‘Music’ is portrayed having autistic meltdowns and both times, its portrayed as an act of mercy rather than the violent and aggressive action that it is. “aren’t you hurting her” Zu asks when Ebo performs the prone restraint action. “No, I’m crushing her with my love” Ebo replies in a line that would be outright laughable if it weren’t so ridiculously offensive and wrong. For reference, autistic people do sometimes have meltdowns when confronted with sensory overload. They are unlikely to be of harm to anyone in that moment and these states can be stabilized in a range of ways, from letting the autisitc person find a quiet space where they can calm down, to talking to them.

I’d hate to think that from watching this movie, more people came to believe that prone restraint is an acceptable way to deal with this situation. These scenes surfaced before the movie was released meaning they were among the concerns that Sia so ardently dismissed when promoting her film. I also fear for the wellbeing of autisitc people who have experienced prone restraint and are reminded of thier suffering through watching these scenes, after experiencing all the trauma that comes through being violently constrained. If there was ever a reason not to watch this awful movie, these scenes provide that excuse. The below video cuts off before any violence is shown, but is worth bringing to people’s attention:

Although I have supported Sia’s music and art in the past, after watching this film I’m done with her. Her vague apologies and attempts to cover up her huge mistakes are too little too late. Its recently come out that this movie has received a golden globe nomination which is an insult not only to the campaigners speaking out against this movies insipid portrayals and terrible writing, but an insult to all the genuinely talented autistic creators who I want to focus on much more in the future, and who unlike this movie are worth your time. I sincerely hope that Sia never plans to come within an inch of this subject ever again and I ask anyone who wishes to make autism media, not to steal agency away from people on the spectrum, not to rob autisitc actors of badly needed work, and not to shut out all facts and opinions which conflict with your ego in pursuit of making a conceited and self-aggrandizing pity narrative! Under no circumstances should creators put themselves on a pedestal by claiming to be supportive of disability, before silencing and patronizing us. If you can’t at least try and understand us by listening to people and organisations who care, let autisitc people tell thier own stories!

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