Music - movie about autism

autistic … Music …

Music is one of the biggest oofs I’ve ever seen.

An admittedly well-intentioned attempt to portray autism on screen in a positive light, it missfired so badly, that it will make you cringe so hard, your teeth will get sucked back into your sphincter. Not only is it a bad movie. It’s also incredibly misguided, horrifically insensitive, and even somewhat dangerous.

That might sound like an exaggeration, but unfortunately, it isn’t. This is gonna be an interesting one…. Written and directed by Sia, who if you don’t know is an Australian pop musician most famous for her song Chandelier and for wearing wigs that make her look like Ongo Gablogian, Music was originally filmed back in 2017 and finally released straight to VOD services this February after a limited theatrical run in Australia.

And it’s the cinematic equivalent of an overdue stillbirth. Being absolutely slated by professional critics, the general audience, and especially by members of the autistic community the film claims to honour. The movie where they had to digitally remove all of the CGI characters buttholes because somebody thought it was a good idea to include them in the first place, was better received than this movie! And we’re gonna talk about why. Music tells the story of recovering alcoholic and drug dealer Zu, played by Kate Hudson, who after the death of their grandmother, suddenly becomes the sole guardian of her non-verbal autistic younger sister Music, played by Maddie Ziegler. Quick aside - if you’re a parent who chooses to call their child ‘Music’, you should probably be put on some sort of list.

And then never allowed into anywhere. Ever…. Being out of her depth, Zu develops a relations with her neighbour Ebo, who teaches her how to manage Music (in a catastrophically wrong fashion, but we’ll get to that..). Predictably, the two get together by the end, despite having no chemistry, and Zu embraces her role as Music’s caretaker, while Music learns to express herself through singing. The plot isn’t worth going through in detail except where it becomes relevant to the controversies surrounding the movie. Which is why we’re really here. But even ignoring them, it’s not a good movie. It’s boring, it drags longer than it’s short runtime would suggest, it has horrible pacing, and does too much of that awful hand-held shakey-cam thing I hate so much.

A fair few plot points make no sense or are poorly established, it’s characters are poorly written, and the performances are only decent at best. It does very little to explore its serious themes, and handles them very poorly. God knows why this was nominated for two Golden Globes.

It didn’t win any, and the Golden

Globes are a joke, but still.

Of course, the shadow hanging over all this, was the casting of the non-autistic Maddie Ziegler to play an autistic character, a decision that led to widespread criticism from the autistic community after the trailer dropped back in November. The issue of representation in media is an extremely complex one that I can’t possibly go over within the scope of this article, but seeing themselves represented appropriately in media *is* important to many members of historically-marginalised communities. Especially given the somewhat mixed record of this up to this point. And a great many people on the autism spectrum were very unhappy with this casting, seeing it as yet another example of a missed opportunity for representation, asking why an autistic actress was not chosen for the role, and accusing Sia of ableism.

Now, the sensible thing would have been for Sia to do a press release through a PR agency, or do an interview, or anything vaguely professional. Instead, she took the worst possible approach, and responded to dissatisfied people directly on Twitter. And with every reply, the hole she kept digging for herself kept getting deeper. She claimed she originally worked with a non-verbal actress but that she found the experience too stressful, and that casting someone at her level of functioning would be “cruel”. She thought casting Maddie would be more “compassionate”, and “best lovingly represent the community.”. Ongo: “BULLSH*T!”. She seems like someone who’s… quite prone to emotion… “I cry at like- umm Master Chef Junior!” *Laughs* "So!". And when she was immediately called out on this feeble excuse by both autistic actors and autism advocacy groups, her responses became increasingly defensive and hostile.

“F*cking bullsh*t, you have no-” “I’m sorry, I can’t do an Australian accent.” “F*cking bullsh*t, you have no idea what happened because you weren’t there! “Grrr f*ckity f*ck! Why don’t you watch my film before you judge it! Fury!”. Oh, that’s f*cking cringe, Sia, what are you doing… "Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice." "These excuses are just that: excuses. The fact is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic. #nothingaboutuswithoutus." “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”. Ohho, oh Sia, no! No, what are you doing?! This is some Amy’s Baking Company levels of bad PR! "That this movie is for them, umm and if we could try and keep our egos out of it, that would begreat!". She also used the excuse that she cast neuroatypical and trans people in the film, “and not as f*cking prostitutes or drug addicts.”. A statement that garnered it’s own backlash and gives off this kind of energy.

“If you kick out every Latino out of this country, then who is going to be cleaning your toilet, Donald Trump?!” "Oh that's no no " "In the sense that- you know what I mean, like-". She did later apologise and delete not only these tweets, but also her entire Twitter account. Although interviews she gave in the months after this show that she hasn’t learned that much. I don’t accept that she couldn’t have found a good enough actress somewhere on the spectrum, and the excuse becomes less credible when you learn more about her relationship with Maddie. Describing it as ‘close’ doesn’t quite cut it. Starting with Chandelier, Maddie has appeared in many of Sia’s music articles, and Sia has said that she didn’t want to make anything that didn’t involve Maddie. "Because I can't do a project without her, I don't want to. I wouldn't make art if it didn't include her.".

The relationship has gone beyond mere friendship and into more of a mother-daughter dynamic, with Sia considering Maddie her “muse”. "And Maddie Ziegler, umm my little dancing muse/surrogate daughter.". She’s also expressed the desire to “save” Maddie from the influence of other adults, such as Abbie Lee Miller on Dance Moms, the show where Maddie first garnered attention. And to “protect” her by creating roles for her. "I want to work with her until the day I die.

I actually just keep writing projects for

Her so that i can keep her safe." *laughs*.

She convinced Maddie to turn down a

Role that she thought would be bad for her career, which like most of her statements, ended up being very ironic.

"Even recently she was offered a part in a film where I felt that the film wasn't good enough for her," "and so I called Melissa and I was just 'Please don't do this, like, this isn't good for her career.'" "'It's not good for her long term credibility, this is not a good, like, co-star to be in a movie with.' Umm ".

They even quarantined together in the same house, and have had a lot of sleepovers where they sleep in the same bed. “In fact I've got about 1000 T-shirts that I had made that just say "Bonus" Mum” and it's all I wear!" *LAUGHS*. What the f*ck?! Let’s be honest, that’s pretty weird. And it explains why Sia lashed out on Twitter in defence of Maddie, and why she defaulted to casting Maddie after the first actress didn’t work out. ONGO: “That! That, I absolutely love! I want it! It’s everything!”. She’s even openly admitted that her decision was made out of nepotism. "And I realised it wasn't ableism - I mean it is ableism I- I guess as well, but it's actually nepotism.". And since she’s declared that she doesn’t want to do anything without Maddie, I’m strongly inclined to believe that she wanted to cast her all along, but had to create an excuse to do so.

SIA: "Well she's- umm I've actually written a movie for her, so she's done with the music articles.". Interviewer: "You've written a movie script?" SIA: "Yes!". Now, I don’t blame Maddie for any of this. She was 14 years old at the time, clearly under the influence of a close maternal figure, and woefully underprepared to play this character. Although naive, she seems to have had the best of intentions, and even expressed reservations about it. "And Maddie arrived and she was living across the road from me at the time." "And I could see something was wrong with her. She was pale and she was just unlike herself." "And I known her since she was 11 and she was 14 now. And I was like 'Honey, what's wrong? Is there something wrong?'" "And she just burst into tears and she just said 'I don't want anyone to think I'm making fun of them!'" "And I was like: 'Ah, honey! Like, I won't let that happen.' I was like 'I promise I won't let that happen!'".

F*cking hell Sia… If you have to even have this conversation, you’re probably doing something wrong! “And also, you can have final cut!" "As I said, if there’s anything in there that makes you feel uncomfortable, then you have final cut.”. But she’s a young teenager, and you’re a mother figure to her, so regardless of what you say, she’s not going to want to say no to you, and it’s incredibly unfair to put this on her shoulders rather than yours! But even if you don’t have a issue with casting a non-autistic actress to play an autistic character - which is still an ongoing debate and it’s really for autistic people to decide - what you can’t deny is that they went about portraying an autistic character in the completely wrong way.

They rightfully recognised that people on the autism spectrum are very different from one another, and that’s it’s impossible to represent them all in one character. But rather than represent one specific form of autism, apparently out of fear that they would thereby offend somebody. “Maybe it's because I was scared that if I- if I made it clear what her diagnosis was that then I might offend somebody.". They decided instead to create their own autistic character by amalgamating a series of stereotypical features attributed to autistic people, resulting in what has been widely denounced as an offensive caricature. Now let me be clear, I’m not autistic myself, and I’m not trying to speak for people that are or get offended on their behalf. They are more than capable of doing that for themselves, as indeed they have done.

There are a bunch of articles up on from autistic people giving their perspectives on the movie, which I’d recommend you guys check out. But just because it doesn’t affect me personally, that doesn’t mean I can’t recognise that this is offensive. Online, I’ve not seen a single autistic person express anything other than contempt for this movie and this representation. And given the reactions of some of my fans who are on the spectrum themselves, I think I’m in good standing to say that this is -to put it mildly - problematic. The character is a walking stereotype, having features that individual autistic people can have, such as being non-verbal, being sensitive to stimuli, having repetitive vocalisations and hand movements, and so forth. But it’s rare for anyone to have all of the characteristics Music does, and of course they don’t come naturally to this actress, which is why it’s considered an insensitive caricature. It’s like when Cartman was trying to fake his way into the Special Olympics, except there he was clearly meant to be in the wrong. “CARTMAN! DEYH!”.

It also reminds me of Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder, except the whole point of that was to take the piss out of able-bodied actors who play disabled parts, the exact thing this movie is doing! Although unlike that time Gary Oldman played a Dwarf in Tiptoes (Yes that’s real, I even did a article on it).

I doubt this problem would go away

If she were portrayed by an autistic actress.

But the fact that she’s not makes it a hundred times worse. I do believe them when they say they never intended to cause offence or hurt anybody’s feelings, but they colossally f*cked this up. And it’s very clear that they neither did their research properly, nor sought input from the autistic community. Sia claims she had two autistic people advising her at all times, But judging by what I’ve seen of her in interviews, she seems to have been surrounded by Yes Men and enablers. “And then a few people started telling me 'No, you're a director, you should do the movie by yourself! Like, you should do it!”. So even if this is true, they probably weren’t in the best position to speak out.

So it doesn’t mean much. And as she later admitted, talking to only two autistic people isn’t a good way to gauge the experiences of an entire community. Autism charities and advocacy groups would have been a good way to go, but they weren’t consulted until after the movie was already completed, which is the backwards approach if you’re trying to “best lovingly represent the community.”. And *Laughs* when she decided to bring one of these groups on board, she couldn’t even get that right! Because she chose to work… with Autism Speaks. I won’t go into details about why Autism Speaks was such a terrible choice. If you want to know more, check out this article, I’ll link it in the description. But just know that they are extremely controversial within the autism community, and they’ve been widely criticised for their methods and approach. Think of them as being like the PETA of autism.

But arguably worse. When she was told about this on Twitter, Sia’s response was “Oh sh*t.”. How do you spend three years researching autism and not know that Autism Speaks is controversial? Huh, that was easy…. And when even Autism Speaks denounces your movie, you know you f*cked up. But like I said, they clearly didn’t do the proper research. Sia said that she was inspired by and wanted to recreate older ‘Feelgood’ movies like Rain Man. “I wanted to make it like the old movies. You know, that- like, Forrest Gump and Rain Man and-” “You know, I short described this movie as Rain Man: The Musical.

Umm but with girls!”. But Dustin Hoffman worked with autistic men and their families for over a year in order to better understand their experiences, and well as spending a lot of time with the savant Kim Peek, the inspiration for his character in the movie. And this dedication comes across in his performance. But Maddie’s research involved watching articles of autistic kids having meltdowns that were uploaded by their parents! And I really hope I don’t have to explain how messed up that is…. And Leonardo diCaprio’s performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Except his character isn’t even autistic. He appears to be developmentally disabled, which is not the same thing. But even if his character *were* on the autistic spectrum, that’s a terrible way of researching how to play an autistic person! That’s worse watching Keanu Reeves in Dracula in order how to learn how to do an English accent! “Yes, of course, sir.

If I may inquire, what in fact happened to Mr Renfield in Translyvania?”. Why didn’t they spend more time with more people who are actually autistic?! Would that have really been that so hard?! This approach also explains why, despite the movie’s title and all this talk about representing autism, Music is not actually the focus of this story. Her entire character is being autistic.

In fact, she isn’t a character, she’s

A prop! she serves as a catalyst for change in others, but remains more or less the same herself.

She exists pretty much solely to facilitate

The relationship between zu and ebo, and is treated more like a pet than a person with autonomy.

There are several scenes where other characters minimise or downplay her agency. At one point Ebo - who is supposed to know what he’s talking about - says that she’s incapable of change. “I’m not saying she doesn’t want to change.

I’m saying she can’t change.”. Which is a horrible way to think about anyone, especially since you’re the one who supposedly knows how to take care of her! WHAT THE F*CK?! This interviewer even inadvertently likens Music to an object, and Sia doesn’t nothing to correct her. “Is almost like a parellel to the main story here! Which is here’s this person who can’t speak," "You know, she might as well be like an inanimate object like a wig, except there's so much going on in there!" (This whole interview is a goldmine of cringe, by the way). But it’s worse than Music being an object. She’s actively infantilised. “It's pure! And that's what I've always found with the special abilities people that I've fallen in love with is this 'purity'.". Music is portrayed as being innocent and childlike, and in line with Sia’s assertions about her having “special abilities”, she sees the world in a fantastical way, and this is the justification for the music articles that intersperse the film, which are supposed to represent her interpretations of reality.

After all, this is a musical, which is kinda weird because Sia repeatedly says she hates musicals.

"Does not- noone's breaking out in song, it's a-" “I hate musicals!” *Laughs* "I literally hate, hate, hate, loath musicals! And that comes across, as the songs overstay their welcome and none of them really stand out. Oh and there are multiple scenes involving strobe lighting that could cause seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy, even within the first 30 seconds of the movie, with no warning! So yeah, thanks for that Sia. Good job. Oh, and a lot of autistic people have issues with sensory overload. If there’s too much stimuli coming in, it can be difficult for them to process and sometimes very distressing. So if you want autistic people to watch your movie, Sia… maybe don’t make the music articles really loud and bright! “And for the musicals I wanted it to be very high density colour.”. But back to Music, her nonverbal autism is portrayed as some kind of wonderful thing, which I guess is better than demonising it, but it’s also very patronising. She’s like some kind of cutsie alien.

Autistic people don’t see the world in this whimsical way and this is a condescending interpretation of their experience. Autistic people, are just that: people. And they deserve to be treated as such, warts and all. South Park, a show that had an episode called “Cripple Fight”, showed its disabled characters more respect than Music does! Even f*cking Mac & Me - one of the worst movies ever made - handled representation better than this piece of sh*t! How sad it that?! And everything in Music’s life is sunshine and rainbows, and we don’t see her experiencing the difficulties and social stigma that many autistic people unfortunately experience.

The whole thing is so woefully tone-deaf. Which is funny coming from a musician. “What I wanted to do was like break your heart, and then put it back together again and give you a Hollywood ending” *This* is a feel-good fantasy, a classic example of inspiration porn that was made to make its creator feel better about themselves without actually doing anything to help the people they’re claiming to help! “That we’re here because we care about the autism community, and we care about caregivers,” “and we care about all of the people on the spectrum and all those who aren’t being represented in film.”.

But if that was true, Sia, then you should have done your homework properly, and not dismissed those autistic people who raised concerns about what you were doing! And there is absolutely no excuse to have included the two worst scenes in the entire movie, that take Music beyond just being a bad, poorly researched, offensive, condescending movie, and into actually dangerous territory.

There are not one, but *two* scenes where restraints are used on Music while she is in distress. Both of these methods as they are depicted are dangerous, and when I watched this with my girlfriend who is trained in proper crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques, she was horrified. These scenes are a bit distressing and I’ve been told they can be triggering, THIS TIMESTAMP IS INCORRECT! IF YOU WANT TO SKIP, GO TO HERE INSTEAD: 24:42. In the first scene, Ebo picks her up and then slams her directly onto the floor, then lays on top of her in a supine position, pressing her into the ground, saying he’s “crushing her with his love”, which sounds incredibly creepy! This is absolutely *not* an appropriate way to help Music calm down or express what she needs in this situation, and is likely to cause her more stress both now and in the future.

And it’s not even safe for him because she could still headbutt him, spit at him or bite him. There are proper techniques that make use of pressure in order to calm such a person down and make them feel safe, but this is *definitely* not one of them! In the second scene, Ebo encourages and teaches Zu to climb on top of Music and pin her fully to the ground in a prone position. Which is even more dangerous than a supine restraint.

They make no effort to de-escalate, encourage

Her to communicate what’s causing her distress, or to lead her away from the situation.


They go straight from zero to 100 by putting her in a position that's proven on multiple occasions to be potentially lethal! This is one of the worst ways to restrain someone, and it should only be used as a last resort in an emergency and even then only on certain people. But that is not how these restraints are portrayed in the movie, and that context is important. If the movie were condemning this, it would be a different story. But Ebo is presented as someone who knows what he’s doing, and on both occasions these are shown to be the right methods to calm Music down. And it is a sign of Zu’s growth as a caregiver that she is able to use this technique. Are you starting to see how absolutely f*cked up this is?! Some people who see this movie and don’t have any other context or understanding of the lives of autistic people or how to address their needs are going to think that this is acceptable, when it couldn’t be more abhorrent! And that’s why this movie isn’t just ignorant, it’s dangerous.

I want to be mad about this, but I’m mostly just flabbergasted at how they thought this was in any way acceptable. Like what the f*k Sia?! In order to cover her ass after the resulting outrage, Sia said that a warning would be added to start of the movie.

That “Music in no way endorses or recommends the use of restraint on autistic people”. Which is complete bollocks! You can’t have it both ways, Sia! She also said she plans “to remove the restraint scenes from all future printings”, but this was a digital release, so why couldn’t she’ve just removed them already? In fact, why did she even film them in the first place?! You did three years of research and thought this was okay?! What were you doing the whole time?! WATCHING SHANE BLACK MOVIES?! “You know a lot of experts say that being on the spectrum isn’t really a disorder.” 

She says that the film was inspired by a low-functioning autistic friend of hers, but that should have been all the more reason to get it right! Would she be alright with this happening to her friend?! She may have had good intentions, but she clearly had no idea what she was doing and comes across as a massive idiot.

And despite sort-of apologising, she continued to make condescending remarks about neurodivergent people, which doesn’t give me much faith in her powers of introspection. She seems to have not known what she wanted as a director, and the way she describes the process, it sounds like it was very chaotic and disorganised. And they spent four years re-editing this movie to get something that she considered worth releasing, which is just solid proof that no matter how hard you try, you cannot polish a turd. And no matter how you look at this, it smacks of being a vanity project. It should come as absolutely no surprise that she gives herself a cameo.

As a pop star who wants Zu the drug dealer to buy prescription painkillers off the streets so she can fly them out to kids in Haiti who need them for surgery “Popstars without Borders!”. It seems like she was trying to do a self-aware joke here, but it inadvertently makes her look even more out of touch than she already did. “I asked Vince, my producer, to help me, and he came and he whispered into my ear at one point: “‘You’re coming off a little bit unlikeable. Is that what you want?’ And I was like ‘Yes! Yes!’” *LAUGHS*. In fact, during the course of my research, she came across as borderline delusional. “I really believe we ended up with the best film because we had- we came to work to work every day with good intentions.” “This is my final big hurrah! Like, I’m so proud!”. What a note to end on…. This film was such a waste of potential.

They had a great opportunity to tell a story about what life is like for a low-functioning autistic person with echolalia, to show how such a person could learn to express themselves through music, and say something about how autistic people are treated in our society. Instead, they present this unrealistic, ableist and very shallow take on this topic, perpetuating offensive stereotypes about autistic people and having everything end all hunky-dory for Music despite how grossly irresponsible and ill-informed all of the adults in her life are. *Zu screaming*]. Yeah, scream your head off next to a person you know is sensitive to noise. Well done. The autistic character that they made such a big deal about representing, takes a back seat to the non-autistic characters who are boring and unsympathetic. And the movie’s other themes - like poverty, addiction, and HIV - are only explored at the most basic and unfulfilling level. Oh yeah, Ebo has HIV, but it’s as inconsequential as Henry Rollins’s 30 second cameo.

Oh and there’s another subplot with this boy, that goes nowhere. And I haven’t even talked about the accusations of blackface or about Ebo being called a “magical negro” character. Which I myself don’t see, but I- I’m not even touching that one…. And there’s a bunch of other stuff I could complain about, but none of it matters in comparison, so who gives a sh*t? You guys get the idea. I regularly put myself through terrible movies for a living, but I’ve not felt this uncomfortable watching a movie in a long time…. Don’t buy this sh* t, not even out of morbid curiosity. It never approaches funny-bad territory, and the cringe is not worth it. To offset the fact that I had to spend money on this, I chucked a bit of money to some worthy causes.