Music, the debut film directed and written by pop singer Sia, was drenched in controversy and castigation before the trailer was released. Earning an 8% on rotten tomatoes, a 3.1/10 on IMDb, and a .5/5 on IndieWire, Music tells a disillusioned story that has been mired in critiques. These criticisms are inherently affiliated with the casting of Maddie Ziegler as the main character of the film: a young girl named Music who is on the autism spectrum. Sia, who is neurotypical, has been at the forefront of reproval from autism activists and the community at large as she seems to be functioning from a stance of ableism. Her position has saturated the film in allegations of appropriation and misrepresentation.
The soundtrack to Music, against all criticisms of the film, is of decent quality. However, the lingering aftertaste of Sia’s repellent depictions of autism pervade the soundtrack, making it hard to divorce the songs from the overall project. The cinematic quality of Sia’s typical music is carried over into the soundtrack, interrupting the plot with musical interludes and psychedelic dance numbers. The ties between music and the plot are unfortunate but unavoidable.
The soundtrack is similar to Sia’s past albums, like 2014’s 1000 Forms of Fear and 2016’s This is Acting: Each song is characterized by repetition, a theatrical sound, and her distinctive voice. Across Music’s 13 songs, Sia conveys a theme about miscommunication and working to understand one another in ways beyond the spoken language. The album was principally written by Sia, with help from her longtime collaborator Jesse Shatkin (who helped her write “Chandelier”) and other big names like David Guetta, Labrinth, Dua Lipa, and P!nk. It is clear that the album is on a noteworthy caliber, but in conjunction with the movie, is impossible to fall in love with.
The title track of the album, “Beautiful Things Can Happen,” is alluring in its arrangement, transforming into an orchestral masterpiece that feels comparable to Sia’s traditional inspirational sound. She flies high in this ballad, repeating “beautiful things can happen anywhere / they can happen anywhere.” In the same style, “Lie to Me” and “Courage to Change” take flight in substantial symphonies that are repetitive, bringing together thematic overtones of inclusivity and tolerance. Sia performed “Courage to Change” at the 2020 Billboard Music Awards draped in an oversized pink gown and a platinum blonde wig with a massive bow that buried her face.
While some of her songs are pensive and heartening, others are blissfully pop. In “1+1”, Sia creates a musical sequence that brings together pop hooks, exciting choreography, and a buoyant spirit. “Hey Boy” is fun, “Floating through Space” featuring David Guetta is absentmindedly lighthearted, and “Miracle” is melodic and jovial. These songs are peppered throughout the film in grandiose dance numbers and colorful sets.
Isolated from the film itself, these songs are innocent and honestly uplifting, painting a portrait of love and perseverance contrasted with loss and dissatisfaction. Sia employs her orthodox stylistic choices of repetitive, explosive bridges within the 13–track album. However, the album itself becomes drastically different underneath the unanimous opprobrium from the neurodivergent community and film critics at large.
When the trailer was first released back in November, criticism from the disability community testified towards the blinding ableist gaze of Sia’s film and her decision to cast Ziegler as the role of a young girl on the autism spectrum. Twitter became one of the main platforms on which the film was castigated; major publications and activist groups quickly came to the defense of the disability community.
Sia choosing to cast Ziegler as the lead has bore the brunt of criticism as several Twitter users condemned her for appointing a neurotypical actress as the face of the autistic community. One user wrote “The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic. #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs,” to which Sia responded “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.” The twitter quarrels continued, with Irish actress Bronagh Waugh calling out Sia in a tweet: “It’s pretty offensive the way you’ve chosen to portray this character.” Sia’s responses to these vexes precipitated more perturbation among the community, ultimately resulting in her deactivating her account.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) followed up with a press release denouncing the film, contending it barricaded autistic individuals from the filmmaking and screenwriting process and irrefutably promoted harmful stereotypes. ASAN, in conjunction with CommunicationFIRST and the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint, specifically addressed the restraint scenes in the film. Tauna Szymanski, Executive director of CommunicationFIRST, further pushed for the removal of these scenes, announcing “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.” Sia has since apologized and added a warning label to the film.
Sia casting Ziegler in the titular role was expected. Ziegler has been the face of Sia’s music since she was 11 years old, starring in the music video for Chandelier. The video features Ziegler, running around in a blonde–bob wig and nude leotard with a devilish smile plastered on her face. Ziegler adopted the same eerie character in Elastic Heart, Thunderclouds, and The Greatest, proving herself as a staple to Sia’s image. Thus, Sia justified her decision to cast Ziegler as an act of “nepotism,” remarking “I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her.”
Sia admitted that Ziegler, 18 years old, had expressed concerns as to whether or not her acting would offend the autistic community. While Sia promised to protect Maddie, backlash from the community proved that the child actress was accurate in her presumptions regarding the indecency of the film. This news also exacerbated Sia’s carelessness in writing and directing the film as she ignored explicit warning signs from the beginning.
Despite all this controversy, Music was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Musical or Comedy. After the criticism and distress that Sia’s movie has precipitated in the autism community and world at large, a Change.org petition called for the removal of Music’s nomination. The petition reached over 132,000 signatures and includes comments from autistic individuals and allies regarding their dismay with the film. The evidence used to promote the petition featured comments from an essay by non–speaking Niko Boskovic, discussing the costume choices Sia made as a “caricature of autistics which relies on depicting us as headphone–wearing.”
Additionally, Boskovic criticized the use of an AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) device in the film to help Music formulate two sentences: “I’m happy” and “I’m sad.” This underestimates the incredible ability of AAC machines to compose thousands of unique words. Finally, the stims and movements that are mechanically performed by Ziegler, a non–autistic actress, have been addressed as well. The leader of the petition and autism advocate, Nina Skov Jenson, discussed how this portrayal is “the same way we have been bullied and mocked our entire lives.” Altogether, Sia’s representation of autistic people is misconstrued and calls to light the distress provoked by the film.
Music, the film and soundtrack combined, convey a dangerous message that has caused great upset. The cartoonish nature of Ziegler’s portrayal of Music, and the notion that this character is living with a flawed body and a magical mind, are taken from an ableist lens under the guise of Sia as a director and songwriter. The sensory overstimulation of the brief musical sequences, saturated in sets and costumes, have been at the forefront of criticism—causing great distress to autistic viewers. Despite the soundtrack alone being catchy and powerful, it is nearly impossible to divorce the music from the film itself.