On the shelf for more than three years but finally seeing the light of day this weekend, Sia’s feature directorial debut “Music” is stirring controversy for its portrayal of an autistic teenager. The lead character, named Music, is played by neurotypical actress Maddie Ziegler, and critics autistic and not are likening the film to a caricature of autistic behavior.
Also stoking ire are moments in the film when Ziegler’s character has to be physically restrained, which Sia apologized for before deleting her Twitter account. (Supposedly, those scenes were to be removed prior to the film’s final release, though as of this writing, a version of the movie featuring the restraint is currently available for rent on Amazon.) The singer/songwriter turned filmmaker previously became defensive on social media prior to the film’s release over accusations of misrepresenting the autistic community.
Matthew Rozsa of Salon called the film “a baffling and patronizing cringefest of ableist minstrelsy,” adding, “‘Music’ is the cinematic equivalent of having someone who claims to be your friend pat you on the head for 100 minutes and say, ‘Aren’t you cuuuuute?’ It cares about autistic people, I sense, but it isn’t listening to us. The result is one of the most grotesque films I’ve ever seen, a movie that literally left me staring in shock with my mouth agape for much of its running time.”
“Even doing research and writing an essay on the film’s problematic elements pre-release were not enough to prepare me for how harmful ‘Music’ is to autistic people,” Joseph Stanichar of Paste wrote. “In two instances in which Music becomes overwhelmed and begins to have a breakdown, Ebo [played by Leslie Odom, Jr.] and Zu [played by Kate Hudson] put Music on the ground and press their bodies against her as she fights back, struggling to break free…. The use of physical restraint should only be from trained individuals and as an absolute last resort. The fact that Sia is only recognizing this days before the movie’s U.S. release cements the fact that she did not listen to autistic audiences or experts throughout the film’s production. The scenes themselves triggered harmful memories as an autistic kid, which made me cry — and not in a good way.”
Autistic actress Ashley Wool told the New York Times, in response to the musical’s recent Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress, “‘Music’ is something that’s doing active harm to people. This gives it a veneer of legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve.”
“Some people might say any representation is better than nothing. I’ve heard that argument as a Black person. I’ve heard it as queer person. I’ve heard it as a woman. I’ve heard it as an autistic,” Morenike Giwa Onaiwu, a visiting scholar at Rice University, told the Times. “I’m tired of the scraps and the crumbs. I’d rather not see us on the screen than see us in a way that fuels stigma.”
Sia said that she originally cast an actress on the spectrum in the role of Music, but she found it “unpleasant and stressful” and so she recast the role with Ziegler. Autistic actress Chloé Hayden told the Times that “first, it’s undermining autistic people’s capabilities and making us out to be infants. Second, if your film is about inclusion, but you’re not making the actual film set inclusive, it completely belittles the entire point.”
“This performance is a caricature of autistic body language,” Twitter account The Autisticats said. “It’s unsettling, and insincere. And it is deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerisms non-autistic people often employ when bullying autistic & developmentally disabled people for the ways we move.”
IndieWire’s own critic called the film “a staggeringly tone-deaf display of magical thinking.”