'Music': Film Review

Merrick Morton

Kate Hudson, Maddie Ziegler and Leslie Odom Jr. star in a musical fantasy, directed by Australian pop star Sia, about a nonverbal girl and her sister.

Let's get something out of the way first: While it has a few incidental felicities to admire, by and large Music is a sentimental atrocity so cringe-inducing it should come with an advisory warning for anyone with preexisting shoulder or back injuries.

Now for some background that must be addressed before we can go further. The film was directed by mono-monikered Australian singer-producer Sia, pulling behind it more baggage than a pop star's tour bus. Music, and please forgive the unavoidable redundancy here, is a musical about a girl named Music (Maddie Ziegler). As it happens, it is also one of the few true musicals of recent years to get itself nominated in the Golden Globe's "best motion picture – musical or comedy" category, earning the film a prerelease publicity boost.

However, that nomination also generated outrage in some quarters, stoking an already smoldering fire of indignation that's been burning since the trailer for the film dropped in November. Replicating the rinse-repeat controversy cycle that's become so familiar now around performance and representation, advance scorn was heaped upon Music for several reasons — but first and foremost for casting a neurotypical actor, Ziegler, as a mostly nonverbal character with autism.

Anger was inflamed further, predictably, by Sia's own defiant defensive clapping back, asserting that she did look into casting an actor on the spectrum but found that the person in question couldn't handle the pressure and overstimulation of a film set. Confusingly, she also asserted that she was more guilty of nepotism than ableism for casting Ziegler, because she is her muse, having performed as a dancing bob-wigged avatar for the singer in several of her pop videos.

Given the current climate, it's practically impossible to judge Music in a vacuum. Furthermore, since critics can no longer pretend to be disembodied beings dispensing judgement without acknowledging our own positions in relation to the identity being discussed, let me get another thing out of the way: I am the mother of a 13-year-old, highly verbal but behaviorally challenged autistic child, and I have met lots of people both young and old on the spectrum, but I have not been diagnosed with the condition myself. Therefore, I do not feel it is my place to speak for the autistic community or declare conclusively how accurate the film is as a representation of the condition.

That said, I have always been persuaded by the saying among the autistic and their allies that if you've met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person. I reckon it's problematic, regardless of whether one is on the spectrum or close to those who are, to declare oneself a final arbiter of how "accurate" a given portrayal is of a fictional character. (Let me also enjoin everyone to see The Reason I Jump, a beautiful recent documentary about nonverbal people — and partly written by one — on the spectrum.)

If nothing else, it's easy to imagine Sia and Ziegler put in the hours studying how some people on the spectrum move (including the tip-toe walking, the stimming, self-soothing movements and the side-eye strategies to avoid overstimulation). A trained dancer who first gained exposure by appearing on Dance Moms, Ziegler offers a very physical, ceaselessly active performance. The role demands not only that she mimic the mannerisms of people on the spectrum in the "real world" parts of the story, but also that she dance, fluently and mannerism-free, the way Ziegler always dances in Sia's pop videos for the sequences where her character imagines herself performing the film's original songs.

In other words, Ziegler is kind of playing two characters here: Music the autistic girl and the dream-world-Maddie-Ziegler version of Music, who pulls off perfect pirouettes, wears eye-searingly bright costumes and wacky hairstyles (costume designer Christine Wada's frankly bonkers designs at least divert from the awfulness elsewhere in the film) and does the same kind of mugging Ziegler usually does.

The songs themselves, mostly overproduced power pop that sounds kind of repetitive to these ears, are underwhelming. But the choreography by Ryan Heffington, who's collaborated with Sia before on "Chandelier" as well as several other notable works (including Spike Jonze's Margaret Qualley-starring "Kenzo World" short), is great: full of jagged arm moves, a varied palette of symmetry and asymmetry, and lots of pleasing shapes made by the cast and the ensemble of backup dancers.

Honestly, anything that distracts from the film's main storyline is welcome. In the film's primary plot, Music lives in a New York City apartment with her grandmother Millie (Mary Kay Place, gone from the story too soon). Assorted neighbors and friends help keep an eye on Music when she has her daily walk each morning by herself around the neighborhood, including Felix, the lonely adopted boy (Beto Calvillo) who lives with abusive parents across the street; grumpy recovering building supervisor George (Héctor Elizondo); and down-the-hall resident Ebo (Hamilton's original Aaron Burr, Leslie Odom Jr.).

Millie dies suddenly, however, and the authorities have no choice but to pull in Music's only living relative, her half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson), a ne'er do well delivery woman for drug dealer Rudy (Ben Schwartz, camping it up). On probation provided she keeps attending AA classes, Zu has been sober for about a month, but the new responsibility of looking after Music, whom she barely knows or understands, will test her sobriety.

Fortunately, Ebo is close at hand to give advice, especially since he had a sibling back in Ghana who was like Music. It's worth noting here that the word "autism" is not actually used in the dialogue, for reasons that are never quite clear, especially since elsewhere Sia has acknowledged the inspiration was an autistic boy she met at AA meetings she attended.

In any case, it doesn't really matter because Music's function in the film — apart from being the consciousness that creates the musical numbers in which nearly all the major players take part (young Felix turns out to be a fantastic dancer) — is to be the magical disabled person who facilitates the romance between Zu and Ebo. The latter has a few sad secrets in his past, but nevertheless has time, when he's not teaching boxing to poor kids from the neighborhood, to drop explication dumps on Zu about how to care for Music.

If you look hard at Music's construction, despite the title, it starts to become obvious that the film isn't really about the character Music at all; it's about Zu. She's the one who has the most prominent and varied narrative arc, and who learns the true meaning of love and family thanks to the suffering experienced by the tragic disabled person as well as the people of color around her.

But before she finds full redemption, we have to watch her be selfish and cold-hearted, initially not giving much of a shit about Music and seeing her grandmother's death mainly as a chance to make money from selling off the late woman's possessions. It doesn't help that — as incarnated by a smugly preening Hudson, rocking an arresting buzzcut and frequently dressed only in skimpy sports bras and pants in order to show off her famously well-toned body — Zu also comes off as a narcissistic monster.

At one point, she competently sings a song that's meant to have been written by her late mother, and then turns to Ebo and says something like, "I know what you're thinking, I should be a professional." No, lady, that's not what we're thinking. And by the way, we're also thinking that poor Music might be better off being cared for by someone other than you.

Production: AN Atlantic Films presentation in association with Vertical Entertainment, Imax of a Pineapple Lasagne/Landay Entertainment production in association with Crush Films
Distribution: Vertical Entertainment/IMAX (Imax for one night Feb. 10 and On Demand Feb. 12)
Cast: Kate Hudson, Maddie Ziegler, Leslie Odom Jr., Mary Kay Place, Beto Calvillo, Juliette Lewis, Kathy Najimy, Tig Notaro, Henry Rollins, Ben Schwartz, Héctor Elizondo
Director: Sia
Screenwriters: Sia, Dallas Clayton, based on a story by Sia
Producer: Vincent Landay, Sia
Executive producers: Jonathan Daniel, Len Blavatnik, Danny Cohen, Julie Greenwald, Craig Kallman, Will Weiske
Director of photography: Sebastian Wintero
Production designer: Tracy Dishman
Costume designer: Christine Wada
Editor: Matt Chesse, Ace, Curtiss Clayton, Dana Congdon
Music: Craig Deleon, Sia, Labrinth
Choreographer: Ryan Heffington
Casting: Rachel Tenner, Charlene Lee
Sales: Hanway Films

Rated PG-13; 108 minutes