Music (2021)

Before going into Music it was difficult to not have a bit of my guard up given that there hasn’t been the most positive press surrounding its release.  Whilst Australia is the first country to see the film – meaning there’s no external reviews to alter any expectation – the fact that it was filmed in mid-2017 and has been shuffled around the release schedule doesn’t bode well, nor the fact that director/co-writer Sia (the Australian songstress best known for belting out such hits as “Chandelier” from behind a face-concealing wig) had responded to criticism pertaining to the trailer with a less-than-tactful attitude; when questioned as to why she didn’t cast actors with autism to play an autistic character, Sia, initially with good intentions, ended up attacking an autistic actor’s ability.  Safe to say it was all a bit messy.

Bad press aside, Music is now here, and whilst there will be those that look at what Sia’s attempting to do as incredibly positive – and I truly believe her heart is in the right place – it’s a very surface level look at disability, with Sia’s ideas better than the actual execution. The Music of the title is that of autistic teenager Music (regular Sia collaborator, dancer Maddie Ziegler) who lives a structured, sheltered life in the guise of freedom, thanks to her loving grandmother, Millie (Mary Kay Place); in an early sequence we see Music rise to her standard routine of an egg breakfast and hair-braiding before her daily walk, which Millie has constructed with the local neighbourhood to be a safe route for Music to travel, seemingly independently.

It’s a thoughtful gesture, but it certainly opens up the conversation about sugarcoating the world for an autistic teenager, existing under the pretence that her environment will always be positive and to her advantage.  The notion of Music’s safe habitat is extended to the film’s many song and dance sequences too, sequences that are manifestations of the escapism she seeks from her world.  Ziegler being a professional dancer means these dream-like set-pieces are to her advantage, but as colourful as they are (and if you don’t warm to Sia’s music, you won’t find these sequences enjoyable at all) they ultimately all just blend into each other, with exaggerated facial expressions and interpretive-type dance moves being the staple of each number.

As much as Music‘s narrative surrounds the titular character, Sia and co-writer Dallas Clayton (an American author and illustrator, best known for his children’s work in the “Awesome Book” series) have constructed almost too many other plot strands to share (or steal) focus.  The main story at hand ultimately involves Music and her reunion with half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson), a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser who is called upon when Millie suddenly dies.  Despite her many, many character flaws, Zu is penned as a loveable free-spirit, almost making a mockery of her tragic situation at times, which unfortunately highlights Sia’s misguidedness.  Hudson being the bubbly, likeable performer she is means she gets away with portraying Zu this way, but a recovering addict being thrust into a life where she now has to solely care for an autistic teenager would result in a much more dramatic display than what Music showcases; wanna bet that we get an “improve yourself” montage at some stage?

As Zu toys with the idea of sending Music to a facility where her needs will be met with more ease than what she is capable of providing, she tries her best to project herself forward towards “Paradise”, or Costa Rica as she eventually states, where she intends to buy a plot of land, teach yoga, and live her best life.  It all seems very in character, but as a recovering addict she has her own responsibilities to take care of, which makes her choice to sell drugs that much more frustrating.  Ben Schwartz makes for an amusing drug dealer, and as much as his character flirts with the script’s comedic temperament he still very much states his intentions won’t stay pure should Zu skip out on him.  It’s little exchanges like this that suggest Sia and Clayton are capable of constructing something a little more real in their scripting, but seemingly wanting to constantly bathe the film in a positive light, Zu barely pays the consequences for her actions, save for a dramatic third act turnaround where she succumbs to the bottle after losing a sizeable payload; said payload leads to a sequence involving Sia herself, the multi-labeled performer proving that acting is very much not her strong suit.

With all of this going on I haven’t even mentioned Leslie Odom Jr. as Ebo, a kindly neighbour and amateur boxing coach with health issues of his own, who immediately takes a liking to Zu, even though they both seem aware that she is not the kindly influence he needs in his life.  Odom Jr. has a beautiful, calmly presence, and the film wisely puts his vocal skills (and his surprisingly great dancing ability) to effective use too, resulting in a character that, though adhering to typical archetypes, is one of the few the film handles suitably.

As for the aforementioned controversy surrounding Sia’s decision to cast Ziegler as a non-verbal on the autism spectrum, it’s ultimately understandable.  Whilst representation is indeed something that needs to be highlighted, Sia claimed to have initially hired an actress on the spectrum who found the filming process stressful and unpleasant, leading to Ziegler’s casting.  As disappointing as Sia’s response was, it’s clear she had her heart in the right spot, which is very much what Music represents. Much like Sia’s poorly worded reaction, this film has the best of intentions which are muddled by their ill-advised implementation.

Music is screening in Australian cinemas from January 14th, 2021.  International territories will follow throughout February 2021.

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