Why “Music” (2021) is harmful for Neurodivergent Representation, and alternatives to consider

By Calum Cooper

A question fellow critics and I often get asked is what is the worst film you’ve ever seen. While I rarely give a definitive answer, what I do say is that the worst films are both poorly made and morally repugnant. “Music” (2021), the directorial debut for singer-songwriter Sia, fits squarely into this description. It’s a filmmaking omnishambles, but that’s the least of its faults. Here’s a film that masquerades as a champion for representation, but is, at its core, a rambunctiously self-absorbed misfire whose understanding of what it’s representing is surface level at best, and offensively ignorant at worst.

What is it that “Music” claims to be representing? Autism, aka being on the spectrum, or neurodiversity. It stars Maddie Ziegler, a non-autistic, or neurotypical person, as non-verbal teenager, Music. Yes, that’s her character’s name. Her life changes when her grandmother dies, leaving only Music’s half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson) to look after her. But Zu is a recently sober drug dealer who can hardly look after herself let alone Music. But with the help of neighbor Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr), will Zu finally learn some responsibility? Does the Moon orbit the Earth?

Let me give you a bit of background on myself. On top of film criticism, I also work as an autism practitioner, and I have done so since April 2019. I assist neurodivergent people with their daily routines in life. However, I in no way claim to be an expert in this occupation, and the fact that I myself am neurotypical means that my words should still be taken with a grain of salt. The best voices to listen to on this matter are the neurodivergent ones. Nevertheless, I still feel somewhat qualified to dive into not only why “Music” is such a regressive portrayal of autism, but offer alternatives to watch instead.

Autism, and the livelihoods of those on the spectrum, is an underrepresented subject within media, with the most well-known neurodivergent characters, such as Sheldon Cooper or Raymond Babbitt, arguably doing more harm than good. This is because they often feel like an amalgamation of stereotypes. We have a saying where I work, “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve only met one person with autism”. This is because human beings all have different physicalities, mentalities, and perspectives on the world. Being on the spectrum does not change this, and assuming so is as hurtful as it is ridiculous. 

“Music” makes this assumption while simultaneously deluding itself into thinking it’s empowering. The casting of Maddie Ziegler alone bears questioning, as she is both neurotypical and, supposedly, used videos of autistic people having meltdowns – likely filmed without their consent – as a research tool. Now, in Ziegler’s defense, her casting seems to have been based on nepotism (she has collaborated on many of Sia’s music videos) and, according to an article from Showbiz Cheatsheet, she was reluctant to take on the role out of fear of offending neurodivergent people. But this casting feels woefully misinformed, especially as her performance is based almost entirely around physicality, be it mouth movements, arm waving, or other acts stereotypically associated with autism. I understand that the occupation is called acting, but without input from neurodivergent people or groups, the performance feels less like representation and more like a farce. That’s down to the director, and not necessarily the actor.

Human beings all have different physicalities, mentalities, and perspectives on the world. Being on the spectrum does not change this, and assuming so is as hurtful as it is ridiculous. 

Take Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” (2018), a much better film that also features an autistic character. Zhao was inspired to make her film when she met the cowboy Brady Jandreau. She even cast Brady and his family for the film, including his sister, Lilly Jandreau, who is on the spectrum. However, Lilly’s autism – while enhancing some of the film’s core themes – does not define her character. She is witty, observant, and protective of her brother. She primarily serves as a source of companionship for Brady. The fact that she is neurodivergent is merely an aspect of her, not her entire personality. Zhao showcases her awareness by not only casting Jandreau in the role, but basing the character around Jandreau herself.

Yet “The Rider” is not about autism. “Music” claims to be, and that is where I believe its biggest problem lies. It isn’t about neurodiversity. Music barely feels like her own person, and that’s because the film doesn’t treat her like one. “Music” is far more concerned with Zu’s story, and how she goes from selfish drug dealer to marginally less selfish caretaker. The rest of the film is populated with drab characters that all suffer from different kinds of trauma, be it domestic abuse, HIV, or villagers that see neurodiversity as a curse – all serious topics that “Music” treats as disposable. Because of this overstuffing and misguided prioritising, Music the person is portrayed as either a cute thing to gawk at or, worse, an obstacle to Zu’s desires.

Music may have a consistent routine, as is standard with many neurodivergent people, but she is still vulnerable enough that the community regularly check on her wellbeing. But when she displays what we would call “challenging behaviour”, it is somehow Zu that we are supposed to feel sorry for, even though every single one of Music’s meltdowns are due to Zu disrupting Music’s routine. For someone like Music, predictability brings reassurance, and even elements of choice and control. I found myself wanting to scream at the TV whenever Zu either forgot Music’s routine, or blatantly altered it to suit herself better. While the film isn’t condoning Zu’s behaviour, it also isn’t giving us anything of hers to empathise with outside of cherry picked traumas, and having the caregiver role thrust on her. Being a caregiver can be stressful, especially if the person you’re supporting can’t always explain themselves when something’s wrong. But care is primarily about recognising their needs and making them feel safe. This film’s idea of care involves pinning Music to the ground in acts of physical restraint that are not only dangerous without proper training, but are humiliating for the individual being restrained.

But it’s the way this film presents Music’s mind that makes it especially harmful. Its physical imitations are bad enough, but Sia seems to think that neurodivergent people don’t operate in the same plane of reality as everyone else. According to the film, Music sees everything as some kind of grand performance, with everything exploding into colour, bursting with sound, and filled with extravagant dancing. Each one goes on for several minutes at a time, glows with opulent smiling, and seems to occur even when Music is not in the room.

Simply put, this is sensory overload. Some neurodivergent people have incredibly sensitive hearing, sight, taste, or otherwise. So rather than tone down these aspects to something more tolerable for different people’s needs, the film instead erupts into display, barraging the audience with everything in its saccharine arsenal. It thinks that Music lives in some kind of magic fantasy land that is her own mind, an utterly banal assumption. While some neurodiverse people do have unique ways of seeing the world, it’s a lot more about processing their environment in a way that they can feel comfortable with.

It’s the definition of a vanity project, and the fact that it uses autism as a means to an end makes it a particularly putrid one. The sole silver lining is how vocal neurodivergent communities have been in their disapproval of the film, meaning most audiences will hopefully avoid it.

Two documentaries come to mind here; “Life, Animated” (2016) and “The Reason I Jump” (2020). “Life, Animated” is a heart-warming gem that follows the life of Owen Suskind, an autistic man who uses Disney movies to better understand the world around him. The film works so well because it gives Owen and his family a platform to express themselves, thus giving us a complete picture of how Owen processes emotions and change. It treats Owen like his own person, because that’s who he is. “The Reason I Jump” takes this even further. It not only adapts the story it is based on – a fascinating novel written by a non-verbal 13-year-old – but goes on to tell the stories of numerous other neurodivergent people, showcasing how every person is different and amazing in their own way. Both films treat their subjects with compassion and sensitivity, without any cynicism or ulterior motive.

I cannot say the same for “Music”, for I do not think representation was on Sia’s mind here. If you’re going to make a film about autism then you need to be committed to giving it your full attention and respect. When you strip “Music” down to its skeleton, it’s not about a neurodivergent person coping with the world. It’s about a tactless narcissist coping with a neurodivergent person. Yet even the film cannot glean enough story from this, and so it catapults us into a tornado of bland characters, underwritten themes of trauma, and obnoxious musical numbers that feel directly lifted from Sia’s music videos. It all feels like an excuse for Sia to promote her brand, to the point where the main character is literally called Music. There’s even a scene where Zu asks if a wig on display is “a Sia wig”, a moment so mind-boggling that I had to pause the film and re-collect myself. To steal a quote from Roger Ebert, “the only button this film needs more than pause is delete”.

Neurodiversity is an unfortunately underrepresented field in cinema, but there are still a number of good films even outside of the three I have already mentioned. There’s “Mary and Max” (2009), a lovely animation that champions the power of friendship. You also have the short film “Loop” (2020), the independent drama “White Frog” (2012), and the documentary “Normal People Scare Me” (2006), which was directed by an autistic man, Taylor Cross, and his mother. Even the episode of “Sesame Street” (1969-present) that saw the first appearance of the character Julia is worth seeking out. Each one of these titles serve as good representation into the lives of neurodivergent people, as well as informing us on how complex and different everyone is, regardless of whether they’re neurodivergent or neurotypical.

This is a sentiment “Music” claims to echo, but instead falls back on tired cliches and dated stereotypes. Even then it fails to create a character out of its titular heroine, instead using her as an exploitative vehicle to sell music, and get cheap reactions out of audiences that don’t know better. It’s the definition of a vanity project, and the fact that it uses autism as a means to an end makes it a particularly putrid one. The sole silver lining is how vocal neurodivergent communities have been in their disapproval of the film, meaning most audiences will hopefully avoid it. But even if it wasn’t surrounded in such controversy already, I would implore you to skip it, given how tone-deaf, poorly-made, boring, and jaw-droppingly overstuffed it is. Chekhov would need a Gatling gun for this one.

Some of the most incredible people who ever lived were on the spectrum, and even comparing them with each other shows just how big and beautiful that spectrum is. The sooner we craft stories that celebrate neurodiversity, the sooner we can build a world that’s more accepting, tolerant, and all-around loving. We can achieve this by educating ourselves, and listening to neurodivergent communities and groups. If “Music” is anything to go by, then no one needs to do this more desperately than Sia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: