21 April 2021
If you’ve ever driven past an accident on the road, you’re probably familiar with the feeling: that burning curiosity that prompts you to slow down and see just how bad the wreckage is. After seeing numerous autistic youtubers and autism advocacy organizations condemning the film Music, it was this same nagging curiosity that finally led me to watch it for myself — and after a painful 1 hour and 47 minutes, I wish I hadn’t.
Australian singer-songwriter Sia, known for her upbeat pop music and iconic face-covering wigs, wrote and directed the controversial film, which was shown in certain IMAX theaters on February 10th before being released on-demand in the United States on February 12th by Vertical Entertainment. Despite the undeserving movie’s two Golden Globe nominations and $649,719 box office earnings, Music received only 8% positive ratings from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, even less than the live-action adaptation of Cats, and was reported by IndieWire to have shown “little initial interest despite its $6.99 price.”
The film is named after one of its characters: a girl named Music, who is supposed to be the protagonist. Having watched it, though, I can assure you Music is nothing more than a prop to aid the real protagonist — a newly-sober woman named Zu.
The movie’s meandering plot follows Zu’s return home after the death of her grandmother. She struggles to make money and achieve her dream of moving to Costa Rica because she is inconveniently tasked with being the caregiver for her nonverbal autistic half-sister, Music. Ebo, Zu’s neighbor, helps her in the midst of her trouble, while also teaching children to box. In a misguided and cringeworthy display likely to cause seizures in epileptic viewers or overstimulation in some autistic viewers, the film is littered with sudden, colorful, and loud musical numbers that Sia claims are meant to show the world from Music’s perspective.
By the time I watched this movie, it was April, Autism Acceptance Month (formerly known as Autism Awareness Month). The question that ran through my mind repeatedly as I watched was why? Music seems at times inhuman, being portrayed as a sick caricature and serving no purpose except to spoil any of her half-sister’s plans by wandering or screaming or embarrassing Zu in public. Worse, she is treated as less than human, described by Ebo and other characters as though she is a rare animal for them to observe. She is called a “magical little girl,” which seems like ignorance at best and mockery at worst.
The story held no real meaning, and nearly everything it said about autistic people was incorrect, or even harmful. Two scenes depict Music being put in the ‘prone’ restraint position when she is having a meltdown, which is entirely unsafe and has caused PTSD and physical harm to autistic individuals, even killing some (a notable example was Californian 13-year-old Max Benson). Tauna Szymanski, Executive Director of CommunicationFIRST, an organization which advocates for the rights of Americans who cannot speak, cautioned, “By not removing the restraint scenes or even providing a warning, those behind the movie are promoting a traumatizing and potentially deadly form of restraint that is illegal in over 30 US states.” When leaders from organizations such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network called out Sia for creating this horrible excuse for a feel-good movie, her team failed to respond.
If that weren’t bad enough, autistic people aren’t the only ones upset by Music. The singer’s film was ostracized by the public not only for the offensive portrayal of autism, but also for the way the story leaned heavily into racial stereotypes. Similarly to how Music is not so much a character as a prop to move the plot along, Ebo, the only black character, seems to have no purpose in the story other than helping Zu with all of her problems. This is known as the “magical negro” trope, and usually involves a nonwhite character whose only job is to happily be of assistance to the story’s white characters. Felix, an Asian side character with virtually no connection to the main story, is pressured by his parents to be really good at boxing even though he clearly hates it. If we substitute ‘be good at boxing’ for a broader phrase — have high achievement — it’s a harmful stereotype about Asian families that’s been shown time and time again. I was already disgusted having to watch non-autistic actress and dancer Maddie Ziegler butcher her role as Music, but these stereotypical characters and storylines made it all exponentially more unbearable.
Curiosity is what led me to watch this film, not interest. I could go on explaining more problems with the movie, but what purpose would that serve if I provided no solution? Here is my honest suggestion, if you find yourself wondering whether or not you should give it a watch: don’t. This movie is so atrocious, inaccurate, and offensive that I implore you to stay away from it. However, to anyone who decides to watch it, watch from the lense of a critic, knowing it is a horrible portrayal of an autistic character, rather than watching it for entertainment. Learn about autism from organizations that allow autistic people to share their insights (the Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a great place to start) rather than ones that silence their voices (Autism Speaks, ironically, is notorious for this). In the words of Teo Bugbee, a writer for the New York Times, “[Music] at times seems indistinguishable from mockery.” This movie isn’t entertaining; it’s an eyesore.