Written by Chris Narine
It’s difficult to misremember the dark, mysterious side of Sia that had been brought to light during her reign as a pop star. The colorful costumes and bizarre choreography had taken Sia’s status as an emerging pop star and amplified it to simply iconic heights. Given her artistic sensibilities that had been primarily on display in her music videos, the notion of Sia clinging to filmmaking is at the very least enticing. However, what is unfortunate is how consistently derivative Sia’s first narrative feature finds itself—tackling autism in such a tone-deaf fashion, to a point where it borders on self-parody.
In Music, autistic teenager Music Gamble (Maddie Ziegler) finds herself viewing the world with a vast imagination, envisioning fantastical sequences of herself and those around her engaged in musical numbers. Meanwhile, her half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson) finds herself responsible for Music’s care after her grandmother, who had always cared for Music, dies. Aided by Music’s kind neighbor Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.), Zu goes on an emotional journey that challenges her past addictions while trying to tend to Music’s own emotional needs.
For a film that presents itself as a psychological exploration of a girl on the autistic spectrum, Music does nothing to properly convey an emotional characterization with her, as she simply exists to help better the spirit and general wellness of Zu, and that’s where the story becomes muddled. While it opens on a visually striking musical number told from the perspective of Music’s wild imagination, each moment akin to it surpassing it feels increasingly transparent. It’s made all the more frustrating by an abysmal, grating performance from Maddie Ziegler.
Given the controversy regarding Sia’s apparent disrespect for the autistic community, it’s natural to assume that her direction of such a character would not be without it’s red herrings. Here, Sia directs Ziegler in a manner that makes her performance feel erratic and unnatural. It’s safe to assume that Ziegler herself wanted no part in conveying Music’s characterization that Sia had hoped to obtain from her. However, both notions only continue to hinder the efforts on display from Ziegler, resulting in one of the most disastrous performances in recent memory. Elsewhere in the cast, we get Kate Hudson doing solid work with the caricature she’s given to play, while Leslie Odom Jr.’s infectious charm and vocals are all in favor of a one-note, clumsily written stereotype.
From a visual standpoint, Music has moments of genuine spectacle that showcase Sia’s wild and bombastic vision. Still, these sequences are constantly at odds with the melodramatic and underdeveloped focus on the sister dynamic between Zu and Music. At a certain point, we’re left beguiled by the lack of catharsis given in Music, a film so hellbent on scattershot storytelling that it immediately prevents any genuine emotional connection from the audience. What we’re left with instead is a mere refinement of a popular artist’s inhibitions. Under the guise of a filmmaker, Sia’s artistic merit is at war with itself, as she can never find the humanity she deftly explores her characters with, or from preventing her feature-length film from resembling a stuffed, misguided vanity project.