It’s difficult to know where to start in writing a review about Music. There’s so much about it you’ll either love or hate, and a whole lot in the middle you could easily be confused by.
The directorial debut of Australian singer-songwriter Sia, Music is the story of the title’s namesake Music (Maddie Ziegler), a non-verbal autistic teenager whose world is thrust into chaos when her carer passes away and her estranged half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson) is compelled to look after her.
It’s a confronting deep-dive into the experience of autism for Zu, who hasn’t seen Music in years and, as a recovering addict, struggles with the idea of being responsible for someone with such nuanced needs. As Zu and Music’s relationship evolves though, they encounter others who’ve felt socially misplaced and inadvertently create a community where strength is found in shared insecurities and vulnerability.
Where Music becomes divisive is in how it translates that story to the screen.
Playing out very much like an interpretive art piece, Music is a mash-up of literal narrative and imaginative dance pieces, all flush with fluro actors moving about the set as they metaphorically reflect Music’s internal world.
It’s a creative choice that keeps with Sia’s own visual style, but can make Music read like an elaborate music video instead of a thoughtful piece of drama-driven cinema. You also have to wonder if you’re catching exactly what Sia was trying to say or, like many trips to the museum, simply musing at the object in front of you and thinking ‘surely it has to mean something?’.
On the plus side, the musical mechanic does give Music’s character a way to be heard, given her sister Zu’s journey takes up most of the spoken scenes throughout the movie.
Music also courts controversy by casting a neurotypical person in the role of Music instead of someone who is on the autism spectrum.
Maddie Ziegler depicts Music with sincerity and respect, but you can’t help but think how uneasy some viewers will feel with her wide-eyed slack-jawed depiction of a community she is not part of, despite Sia wanting to elevate their voice”.
Responding to criticism, Sia previously said, “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl, non-verbal on the spectrum, and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie”.
“Casting someone at [Music’s] level of functioning was cruel – not kind – so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the [autistic] community,” Sia said.
It’s a dilemma more modern film-makers will no doubt face, as the pressure to produce inclusive narratives accelerates in an industry whose craft requires actors to inhabit lives other than their own.
How that conversation unfolds? We’ll have to wait and see, but in the meantime Music provides an insightful, if not entirely clear, look at the lives of those who can oftentimes feel unseen, and how we can better listen to their stories.
Music is in cinemas now. Rated M.