M, 107 minutes
Fashions in virtue change rapidly, as Australian pop singer Sia learnt to her cost last November when publicity for Music, her first film as writer-director, sparked outrage from much of the internet.
The trouble was that Maddie Ziegler, the precocious young dancer from Sia’s video clips, appeared to be playing a character on the autism spectrum, although the actual Ziegler by her own admission isn’t autistic at all but just pretending. That might have passed muster 3½ years ago, when the film was reportedly shot, but in the enlightened 2020s, it’s self-evidently problematic.
Or so some would argue. To my mind, this implies a strangely literal view of the nature of fiction – and in general, I’m more than a little wary of the dogma which says that artists should avoid trying to imagine the experiences of people different from themselves. But while I went into Music prepared to stick up for Sia’s good intentions, it wasn’t long before I was wondering if the campaign for cancellation might have its points.
As the orphaned Music – yes, that’s the character’s name – Ziegler is operating at full capacity from the word go: jaw slack, shoulders hunched, glancing around in wide-eyed wonderment as if tracking the movements of an invisible butterfly. No viewer is likely to mistake this display for anything but a calculated, stylised performance – which might not be bad in itself, if there were a little more nuance involved. In the event, I felt my own eyes widening in response: was she going to carry on like this for the entire film?
Indeed she was, though it would be unfair to put the blame primarily on Ziegler, aged just 14 at the start of the shoot. As conceived by Sia and her co-writer Dallas Clayton, the largely non-verbal Music is less a full-fledged character than a fey symbol of innocence: we’re told that she “sees the world in a completely different way” and that she can’t change, although you’d think having recently gone through puberty would make an impact of some sort.
The film’s real protagonist is Music’s much older half-sister, Zu, a recovering addict improbably played by a smiley Kate Hudson, whose theoretical surliness is indicated mostly by her buzzcut (still more improbably, the role was originally conceived for Shia LaBeouf). In an apparent homage to Rain Man, she’s forced into becoming her sister’s caregiver, planning at first to dump her at the “people pound” but reconsidering when faced with the disapproval of her new love interest (Leslie Odom Jr), a saintly boxing instructor.
His influence mostly keeps her on the right path, though it doesn’t stop her from making a living by racing around her sunlit city peddling OxyContin and other pills. Her clients include a version of Sia herself, who claims to be sending medication to Haiti for charitable purposes: evidently a gag of some sort, though this is one of a vast number of moments where it’s impossible to guess what anybody was thinking.
As for storytelling, Music is the equivalent to a pop-up bar furnished with hastily assembled knick-knacks from the 1990s, in desperate hope we might assume the randomness was somehow by design. Utterly consistent, however, is the commitment to cloying whimsy, exemplified by the fantastical production numbers where Ziegler is joined by a bevy of wackily over-emoting dancers who twirl and jerk their limbs against primary coloured backdrops (with the occasional genuinely weird detail, such as the children encased in rubbery pink spheres like living grapes).
The Teletubbies-go-Bollywood aesthetic is presumably meant to visualise Music’s private dreamworld, though the therapeutic bromides of the lyrics (“We’re so insecure/Humans, we’re so insecure”) can hardly be taken to reflect any perspective other than Sia’s own.
Music is billed as a “cinematic experience” and, honestly, I’m not about to argue. Though the film may lack the sickening nightmare quality of Tom Hooper’s screen version of Cats – apparently set in some version of hell – it’s scarcely less of a baffling fiasco, and may inspire a similar cult of ironic enthusiasts who return repeatedly to gawk at the wreckage. Under such circumstances, the fact that the film does not star a genuinely autistic actor might be all for the best.
The Watchlist newsletter
Find out the next TV shows, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Sign up to get it every Thursday.