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Film review: Music

Film & TV

Adelaide-born singer-songwriter Sia’s long-awaited directorial debut about a girl with autism has hit the silver screen after a storm of controversy.

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Sia has long been renowned for the stunning videos that accompany her music. While she has co-directed music videos in the past, Music represents her first attempt at taking the helm of a feature film.

The film is a musical drama focussed on the life of Music, a young girl on the autism spectrum who seems to experience the world through music. Sharing an apartment with her grandmother Millie (Mary Kay Place), Music (Maddie Ziegler) lives in a community brimming with love and support.

When her grandmother dies, Music’s safe and structured world is upended, and she is left in the care of her estranged half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson).

As a recovering addict on parole, free-spirited drug-dealer Zu is barely coping with her own issues when she finds herself thrust into the role of Music’s guardian and caregiver. Broke and barely sober, Zu is forced to accept that Music’s neighbours Ebo (Leslie Odom Jnr) and George (Héctor Elizondo) have much to teach her about how to care for her sister and the strength that can be found in a loving community.

The movie is studded with 10 visually stunning musical interludes that represent Sia’s interpretation of the way Music sees the world. All the pieces were written or co-written by Sia and performed by Ziegler, Odom Jnr and Hudson. Ziegler has worked extensively with Sia in the past and Odom Jnr’s impressive theatre credits include Broadway hits such as Hamilton.

On top of her co-writing, directing and musical credits, Sia also handled the casting. The film is peppered with familiar faces: Juliette Lewis, Henry Rollins, Ben Schwartz and Tig Notaro, just to name a few.

But it’s Sia’s decisions about casting that have drawn the ire of disability and autism activists, culminating in a petition and calls to cancel the film. The fact that neither Sia nor Maddie Ziegler have experience of autism has attracted criticism.

When confronted about her decision to cast a neurotypical actor in the role of a neurodivergent person, Sia defended her choice, claiming that she engaged widely with people with autism and their allies and that she had tried to work with a young, non-verbal girl on the spectrum but the actor found the project too unpleasant and stressful.

This has not mollified Sia’s critics, with people on the autism spectrum and their allies continuing to speak out about representation, offensive stereotypes and “inspiration porn”.

As a reviewer who has no experience of living with or caring for a person with autism, I can’t speak to Ziegler’s portrayal of Music’s abilities or Sia’s fantastical representation of Music’s world view. What can be said is that the film is both visually and musically stunning. Kate Hudson and Leslie Odom Jnr’s performances are exceptional. And while Sia may face criticism for making a film about a community to which she does not belong, this story also has a great deal to say about the power of love, family and community in the face of hardship – whether those hardships come in the form of disability, illness, identity, addiction or poverty.

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