As we look back on a tumultuous year of filmmaking amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s triumphant to consider the vast array of cinematic successes that have risen up from every corner of the world in 2021. From the likes of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car to Wes Anderson’s French Dispatch and the Bosnian drama Quo vadis, Aida?, this year has shown that for cinema to be buoyant, it relies on every rung of the industry ladder, from independent films to blockbuster goliaths.
Though, for all this year’s glittering successes, there is, of course, always the opposite, with Sia’s directorial debut, Music, standing out as truly the worst film of 2021. Likely the last time Sia will ever foray into the world of feature filmmaking, Music was appallingly received by critics and audiences alike upon its release in early 2021, lambasted for its shocking treatment of its central autistic character.
Directed and co-written by the world-renowned artist, Sia, Music follows the struggles of a newly sober woman named Zu (Kate Hudson) who is told that she has been named as the sole guardian of her half-sister named Music (Maddie Ziegler), a non-verbal autistic girl. Having to navigate the workings of her new reality, Sia’s film attempts to probe the themes of identity and personal ambition with little to no respect for the seriousness of its messages, lacking genuine coherence and authenticity.
Having collaborated with the young dancer Maddie Ziegler many times before, Sia irresponsibly chose the then-18-year old to star in the film as the titular character, despite the performer having no life experience or knowledge of the nuances of the autism spectrum. As a result, with Sia’s guidance, Ziegler creates a mere offensive caricature of an individual with autism, reflecting many of the unsettling, insincere and exaggerated stereotypical mannerisms that are often aimed against the autism community.
To make matters worse, Ziegler’s character is transformed when she listens to music, as her character’s name makes insultingly clear, with the film turning into a vibrant fantasy of popping colour and vigour whenever she puts on her headphones. In this dreamworld, Music is an able-bodied young girl, with each song reflecting her state of mind, detailing a ‘magical mind’ and ‘restrictive body’; a problematic message to say the least that seems to suggest that autism is an illness to be cured.
With no activism behind the film’s production, nor no clear message behind the prevalent discussion of autism throughout the film, such makes Sia’s role in the creation of the film rather sinister. Releasing an album alongside the film that includes all the musical numbers from Music, it seems as though autism was merely used as a commodity to sell herself as an artist, used as an egocentric tool to promote her own apparent ‘benevolence’.
In the ongoing conversation in Hollywood that discusses the use of actors with real-life experience for marginalised roles, such as disabled or transgender characters, Music is an embarrassing reminder that mainstream filmmaking still has far to go to attain such equality.