An old-fashioned piece of shameless hokum, Sia’s Music might be hilarious if it weren’t so offensive. The trouble started late last year, when the singer-songwriter-turned-director’s feature debut was called out by many for casting Maddie Ziegler, the neurotypical dance prodigy and child star of several Sia videos, in the role of Music, a teenager with autism. Some took understandable exception to leaked scenes featuring characters in the film casually using on Music a form of restraint that can, in fact, be quite dangerous. They were further perturbed by reports that the YouTube clips Ziegler watched for research into her role were videos parents had posted of their children having meltdowns — scenes showing these kids at their weakest and most vulnerable, that were now presumably being used to extrapolate a whole set of behaviors.
All of this is troublesome, certainly (and Sia has made some apologies since) but Music’s greatest sin may well be that in the guise of giving exposure to an underrepresented community, it actually delivers a silly, cliché melodrama that manages to sideline that community even further. Even if Sia had done everything right — cast differently, vetted the procedures being depicted, etc. — the movie would probably still be terrible thanks to its story, which is more about Music’s older half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson) and her attempts to straighten out. Zu comes back into Music’s life after their grandmother (Mary Kay Place), who was caring for the girl, dies of a sudden heart attack. Zu thinks there might be money in the will, so she shows up, only to discover that not only is there no money, she is also now responsible for the care and well-being of an autistic child.
But any real drama that could have come from the premise of callow, childish, opportunistic Zu learning to understand and love her sister is undermined by the fact that Sia doesn’t seem that interested in their life together. Instead, we get a subplot about Zu dealing drugs to make ends meet, her extended conversations with her very odd, possibly psychotic supplier Rudy (Ben Schwartz), to whom she owes a lot of money, and a bunch of scenes where she tries to pass Music off to others. We get the point of Zu’s irresponsibility, but all this prompts further questions: What exactly does Music do all day? What does caring for her actually entail? What are her needs, other than the walk she takes every morning and the list of allergies that grandma helpfully wrote out in a notebook? The film never really offers us insight into such matters. It simply assures us that it’s all quite a challenge — which might actually be the most offensive thing about it.
Meanwhile, a kindly neighbor, Ebo (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who had already been helping grandma out, comes by to offer guidance, wisdom, low-key romantic tension, and occasional somber glances to make sure that we know he’s quietly suffering, too. (Unbeknownst to Zu, he has HIV.) Also hovering around Music’s life is a kindly, quiet teenage boy across the street, who trains to box in the gym where Ebo works, even though he really yearns to be an artist, much to the disapproval of his hard-ass dad. It’s like one of those music videos from 20 or 30 years ago where we would see a whole cavalcade of people in quiet agony, so as to validate a pop ballad’s Big Themes. Who knows? Maybe Music would have worked in that format. But at feature length, its characters’ challenges don’t come across with the specificity or sensitivity required to immerse us in their worlds and bring them to life. Everything is drawn with the broad-strokes shorthand of a music video, where narrative depth is rarely the point.
But then there are the musical numbers. The film is filled with them, and here’s where Sia is more assured. The surreal, primaryy-color dance sequences are usually dream visions — filled with the kind of exaggerated facial expressions, ridiculous costumes, and sudden, grandiose moves that have become a staple of her videos over the years — and they have an infectious, hallucinatory energy, like Busby Berkeley tried to remake The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T in the world’s biggest foam pit. Ziegler is a terrific dancer, to be sure. And the songs are wonderful, because, well, you know, Sia. With their bright colors, trippy sets, thundering beats, and aching melodies, these scenes remind us of what an accomplished musician the director remains — and they even hint at the kind of filmmaker she could become. But then the dancing ends, the movie and its hackneyed story kick back into gear, and any good will we might have mustered dissipates once more.
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