Music (2021) Review
I AM SAD! POORLY EXECUTED,
INSENSITIVE, AND A DISGRACE
Every major / famous film director that have had their movie grace the silver screen started out at one point as a first-time director. Younger and less experienced in the director’s seat, first time directors often fumble around in trying to juggle such cinematic storytelling in the best way that they can; trying to stage sequences of events and / or characters into something that adheres to their vision for their film endeavor. Some have definitely failed on this front as a lot of directors (some of who go on to have illustrious careers as movie directors) are not usually known for their first movie; gaining credibly and popularity with their experiences on future projects as time goes on (i.e., honing their craft). However, there are some directors that actually are well-known for their crafting / shaping their first film project in a rather unique and celebratory way. Such examples of this comes from a handful of directors, including Orson Welles’s 1941 Citizen Kane, Frank Darabont’s 1994 The Shawshank Redemption, Sam Mendes’s 1999’ American Beauty, Richard Kelly’s 2001 Donnie Darko, and Alex Garland for 2015’s Ex Machina. Now, HanWay films and musical recording artist Sia (in her directorial debut) releases the movie titled Music. Does this project rise to the occasion and join the ranks of some of great films from first time directors or is it a unwatchable mess that’s lack precision and guidance?
Living in New York City, Music Gamble (Maddie Ziegler) is a young autistic woman, who lives with her grandmother, Millie (Mary Kay Place). Projecting life in the way that adheres to her routine, Music watched over by her neighbors such as George (Hector Elizondo) and Felix (Beto Calvillo), who do their best to keep the young girl safe from harm. When her guardian suddenly dies, Music’s sister, Kazu “Zu” Gamble (Kate Hudson), is awarded custody, returning to an apartment she happily left long ago. Facing troubling issues of being an alcoholic, a drug addict, and a criminal, Zu is forced to put her life together after a stint in prison, sensing money to be made with her new angles. Handed 30 days to figure a living situation, Zu looks to put Music in a care facility, eager to return to her routine as a drug dealer for Rudy (Ben Schwartz), but she begins to bond with her sister; learning to cope and understand of caring for a autism individual. At the same time, Zu warms up to Edo (Leslie Odom Jr.), an African boxing instructor with plenty of his own issues to sort through, making any true connection difficult. Together, Zu, Ebo, and Music come together to learn from one another and understand what they are all looking for in their respective lives.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I stated above, every director has their first film that they directed. Even all the famous ones from moviemaking history like Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan at point started out in the “first time” directing a cinematic project. While many would go on to direct such prolithic project, most of their directorial debut features are not what there are known for. In truth, my personal feelings towards a lot of first-time directed films are a bit mixed, especially since a lot have that “arthouse” feeling as if the director is trying to grasp onto what they learn from film school, but definitely lacking the experience necessary to pull off a memorable hit; a combination of helming the film’s direction / story and / or the actors involved. Plus, it also depends on the film itself. Is it a lesser known independent film or a blockbuster tentpole (with studio production value behind the project). It’s hard to task to deal as I’ve personally seeing many projects fail or don’t exactly “make the cut” of the ambition of either the project or what the director wanted. Still, there are those projects of a first-time director that actually do succeed like the ones that I mentioned above. Perhaps some of my personal ones would definitely have to be The Shawshank Redemption and Ex Machina; both of which demonstrate how a director can craft a very memorable / unique story as well as balancing characters, actors, and entertainment value.
This brings me back to talking about Music, a 2021 musical drama that is musician artist Sia’s directorial debut. I will say that I like Sia’s music. Not to say that I am a huge fan of her work, but I do enjoy listening several of her song, especially some of her more famous ones like “Chandelier”, “Cheap Thrills”, “Titanium”, and “Rainbow”. So, I was a bit curious when I heard a few months ago that Sia was gonna direct her first movie. After that, I really didn’t hear much about the project. That was until I started to her the controversy surrounding this particular movie, with the project having a negative response from people who had seeing an advance screening of the film. Naturally, the subject of depicting of autism or any type of physical / mental disability has always been a “touchy” thing to portray on any medium. Thus, I kind of knew that the movie was gonna be under heavy scrutiny. However, Sia herself considered Music to be a “passion” project and usually (under those terms) are handled slightly better, with the director demonstrating something of value and / or importance to them personally. Again, that’s the usual case for such usage of a “passion project”. Still, I was a bit leery of the film right from the get-go, especially since I read that Sia herself had to apologize on social media for the movie due to the negative backlash. On that front, I was curious. So, I decided to purchase a ticket to go see it at the one movie theater that is still open in my area….to see if the controversy surrounding Music is justifiable as well as all the negative reviews for it. Well….was it? To be sure, I do have to agree with the great majority of the people talking about this movie. While the intent is there, Sia’s Music is marred by a poorly executed direction and a very questionable decision in handling certain mechanics on the topic of autism. Sia’s intention comes from a well-mannered place of the heart, but the film itself becomes messy and insensitive right from the get-go.
In the director’s chair for Music is the musician Sia herself; making her directorial debut with this particular musical drama endeavor. While it’s not the best I’ve seeing from a first-time director, I do have to admit that Sia does halfway decent job helming this project. Naturally, there is a lot of problems with this particular movie (more on that below), but, for what its worth, Sia does manage to make a few scenes “coming alive” with a certain type of cinematic treatment. Of course, what I am talking about are the film’s musical scenes, which evoke a “music video” nuances and influences of what I assume to believe what the character of Music perceives as situations through the people she knows and within her own imaginations. As one can surmise, this is where Sia’s strengths shines, with plenty of catchy and bubblegum oddities being displayed throughout these sequences; speaking to Sia’s own music videos (if seeing one, you’ll know what I am taking about). Suffice to say, these moments play to the director’s background and definitely carry a distinct feeling towards it.
Looking beyond those moments, I felt that Sia did fairly decent job in shaping the struggling core narrative mechanics of the film found in the relationship between characters of Zu and Music. It goes without saying the struggle that Zu has in caring for Music daily routine (awareness, desires, and meltdowns) can be one extrapolated to the real world, with many caring (parenting or assisting help) with the daily well-being of autistic individuals can be quite a challenging, especially if someone is unaccustomed on how handle particular situations. In this regard, Sia does manage to show this (albeit in a bit slight dramatic fashion) within Zu and how certain situations of Music’s life can vary from the smallest things. It’s a way of understand of people “on the spectrum” work and interact with the world and, while I don’t agree with everything about this, the intention of such sequences is commendable within Music’s core awareness. There is a heartwarming feeling, yet it is unfortunately marred by what’s surrounding the feature. In the end, the core message of what Sia wants to convey is there, but just is poorly executed.
In the film’s presentation category, Music is good and probably the better part of the movie itself. Of course, the film’s budget wasn’t high (it’s quite clear), but the film manages to cultivate a realistic background setting for the principal story; displaying the urban life of living the city. Perhaps the best aspect of the film (or rather the best visually appealing) is found within the various song / dances that portrayed in the character of Music’s imagination; brightening up the feature with dazzling area of color and catchy pop songs. Though I do have to admit that these are a bit odd in their undertaking (as mentioned above). That being said, these sequences are a washed with that whole “music video” vibe are vibrant yet a bit goofy. Despite that, these parts are colorful and imaginary and definitely speaks to Sia’s strengths rather than hitting dramatic beats in the movie. Thus, I do have to give credit where credit is due in this regard. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team such as the art direction, production design, and costume designs are decent to make the feature “pop” and enjoyable (perhaps one the better aspect that the movie has to offer) as well as all the various dancers and choreographers depicted in the music video like scenes. As with the movie itself (with Sia directing), the film is charged with Sia’s music and, for better or worse, some of the songs featured in Music are quite catchy. They might not be beat out some of her bigger hits, but I think that decent enough to work within the feature’s musically charged fantasy sequences. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Craig DeLeon, is serviceable to the movie; adhering to whatever the narrative requires of emotional / character dialogue moments. It’s nothing grand nor memorable as nothing stood out to me, but I really don’t have any complaints about it.
Unfortunately, Music, despite the intent of what Sia wants to convey with this particular movie (i.e. awareness), never gets off the ground properly and stumbles more periodically than taking strides as well as being more insensitive / misinformed to the autistic community. How so? Well, the biggest flaw that the movie makes is in the latter portion of this criticism, with Music coming off as a hollow and badly interpretation of what it means in having autism and how to handle certain situations. Perhaps the worst blunder that Music depicts is in showing how to handle an autistic person is in “face down” restraint; an act which has been condemned by many in the autism community for potentially dangers of physically hurting and / or killing the autistic child. Sia, herself as since apologized for this depiction in the film on her Twitter account, with the promise to learn from this mistake (as a director) and that the future prints of the feature would remove such scenes as well as a disclaimer. However, when I saw the movie (in theaters mind you) I didn’t see any type of disclaimer (unless its tagged at the very end of the film’s end credits) and I noticed that there were two scenes that depicted this physical restraint on the character of Music. So….was there more scenes that depicted this horrible practice? Personally, when those two scenes happened in the film…. I felt uncomfortable like “this is wrong!” and “Why would they allow this into a movie?” Even the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), The Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint, and Communication FIRST made a joint press release declaring the use of the restraints to be dangerous after the “movie team [failed] to address recommendations to protect autistic people”.
This is even further criticized more to Sia’s lack of misrepresentation of autistic people, with Sia herself citing more apologizes over the controversy surrounding this particular film. There’s definitely a lacking need of authenticity to make the feature will quite appropriate in speaking / portraying a person with autism. Plus, as many know, those individuals who are on “the spectrum” have varying degrees of autism, with some who can function as normal people and not everyone with autism is placed in the “extreme” category …. something that Music depicts within its central figure character, who is a non-verbal autistic girl. Such depictions seem something Sia is pandering to a general audience and it is all in poor taste; further cementing the ideas / mindset of how much Hollywood itself (in general and the business) is so out of touch with reality. Throughout the movie, the character of Music is displayed as a more stereotypical iteration of a person with autism and, while Sia’s intent setting a film squarely on such a individual is well-intended and admirable, the overall depiction is bad and a very insensitive to the autistic community. Even, I, who has seeing various people with autism, know that what’s presented in Music is more cliched ridden and done in perplexing way that it becomes almost offensive. This whole thing definitely felt a sour taste in my mouth and its quite clear that Sia didn’t have very helpful guidance or have done much research into tackling such a challenging depiction of autism, despite the fact that the pop star musician had three years of research on the subject. It’s almost like…. how did this particular film ever get greenlight for a final edit…. without having a greater understanding or approval from the autism community and its various organization or society.
Looking beyond those critical points, the movie itself is riddled with “first time directing” errors that Sia can’t escape; rendering the film feeling woefully bland to the touch. Of this particular criticism, the biggest issues that I had with the movie was something I already praised…. the stylish music video sequences throughout the movie. Yet, now I’m criticizing them. Why? Well, while these are colorful and definitely play Sia’s strengths of energy / musical tones, they fell out of place with the rest of the movie, which is more grounded in drama. Initially, Music was originally supposed to be a drama feature, but Sia was asked to write music for the project and decided to had those “music video” like sequences into the mix throughout the movie. The problem? Well, it becomes distracting and tends to take away from the more dramatic moments that the film is trying to present. Plus, they’re way too numerous. Maybe two or three could’ve been better, but more than that is overkill and that’s what happens in Music. Even if one disregards that, the narrative path of the feature is rather bland and almost predictable has to what’s gonna happen, which really doesn’t help the movie at all. The script being penned by Sia and Dallas Clayton doesn’t help the feature’s narrative, which is riddled with problems, including several pacing issues in the story, a few minor plot hole gaps, and messy secondary storylines. All of this ends up making Music a less than memorable feature; treading plenty of familiar ground, but in an unsatisfying way that makes the whole endeavor bland to the touch and making the viewing experience sour.
The cast in Music is another part of the film’s problem; a combination made from some questionable casting decision as well as some poor written characters. Perhaps one of the biggest casting blunders that the movie has faced is in the casting decision of choosing Maddie Ziegler in the film’s main lead role of Music. Ziegler, known for her on the Lifetime reality TV show Dance Moms as well as films roles like The Book of Henry and Leap!, seemed like ideal choice for being part of Sia’s project, especially since she had collaborator with the pop star on several occasions including as a dancer on the music videos for Sia’s “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart”. That being said, the casting choice of Ziegler in the role of a character who is a non-verbal autistic young girl, isn’t the best. Why? Well, Ziegler herself isn’t “on the spectrum”, so (naturally) the decision to make a non-autistic person portraying an autistic film character is a wonky, especially since nowadays many out there believe that representation of any one individual (i.e. gender, race, or physical / mental disability) should be played by a person of that same caliber for a perfect representation. The result is, unfortunately, is quite wonky and definitely misrepresented right from the get-go, with Ziegler playing Music in a way that makes the character almost like a stereotypical / cliché of how people view autistic individuals. It’s very typical of Hollywood to make the character a bit on the extreme measure in an almost caricature. I felt it was very disrespectful to those in the autistic community and, while Ziegler’s intents are true, the character just seems off. And her big research for portraying the character of Music? Ziegler states that (in a September 2019 Marie Claire interview) that said that one she prepared for her role was by watching YouTube videos of autistic kids melting down that were posted by their parents. Yes, that’s one of her “training methods” to playing the autistic character in the movie! Plus, the script also pushes aside the character of Music towards the third act. Overall, Ziegler may go on to have a promising career, but her involvement / portrayal of a autistic character in the film Music is definitely hits a sour note and a black mark on her career.
The only one in the trio of the feature’s main leads that shines in the movie is actress Kate Hudson, who plays the role of Music’s sister, Kazu or rather just simply going by the name of Zu. Known for her roles in Almost Famous, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and Glee, Hudson seems to be the “beacon of hope” for this project by making a somewhat compelling character role in Zu. Naturally, Hudson is quite talented and definitely gets into the character, who is probably the most relatable character; finding Zu to be a complexed individual is struggling with her own inner demons and is now in the caretaker of her autism sister. However, the character arc for Zu is quite predictable and is quite easy to see where her character and the film’s script does little to make the character of Zu stand out. Thus, Hudson’s acting talents help make Zu stand out, but that’s more theatrical nuance than anything else.
Beyond her, actor Leslie Odom Jr. is terribly underutilized in the movie as the character of Ebo. Known for his roles in Hamilton, Murder on the Orient Express, and Harriet, Odom Jr. is quite the talented actor (I loved him as Aaron Burr in Hamilton) and has become a somewhat of a rising star in the various project he’s tackled. Thus, its quite a disappointment to see him in this role. Don’t get me wrong…. Odom Jr.’s acting is fine as Ebo and he certainly plays the role to the best of his abilities. However, the character of Ebo is rather bland and simply fits the bill for the “love interest” in the film. Plus, a lot of the backstory information for the character is quite lame and hard to follow. In the end, Odom Jr. gives what he can, but the material given to him makes his involvement in Music less stellar and wastes the potential for the actor. Plus, I really couldn’t buy into the on-screen chemistry between him and Hudson.
Even worse, the supporting players in the film are either woefully underdeveloped or heavily underutilized in the narrative. This is case with acting talents of actress Mary Kay Place (Being John Malkovich and Girl, Interrupted) as Zu / Music’s grandmother Millie, actor Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride) as Music’s neighbor George, actor Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation and Sonic the Hedgehog) as Zu’s eccentric drug dealer Rudy, and actress Juliette Lewis (From Dusk Til Dawn and Cape Fear) as one of Zu’s clients Evelyn. The disservice of these acting talents on this project is felt immediately as most are neither pushed aside for having one or two moments to shine or just creating bland / stereotypical caricatures. Either way…. the potential is wasted.
The rest of the cast, including actor Beto Calvillo (making his first appearance in a movie role with this project) as Music’s kind-hearted neighbor Felix, and actor Luoyong Wang (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Daylight) and actress Celeste Den (What / If and The Blacklist) as Felix’s abusive father and concerned mother, are delegated to minor supporting characters in the movie. As mentioned, this whole storyline of Felix and his parents seems quite messy and wonky; feeling out of place with the rest of the feature. The acting is particular good and meaningful in the subject context surrounding it, but doesn’t belong in the movie and ultimately gets shortchanged. I still think that this should’ve been its own movie than being a part of Music. Lastly, Sia herself makes a cameo in the movie as herself and, while it’s a bit small for one particular scene, it is a bit cringeworthy. She’s not particular bad in acting, but her role cameo appearance feels superfluous and almost like vanity cameo appearance.
Facing personal troubles in her own life, a young woman must learn to understand (and appreciate) what she has with her non-verbal autistic sister in the film Music. Making her directorial debut with this project, musical artist Sia present unique music filled drama that definitely speaks to her eccentric style of music video, yet also manages to find heart within its dramatic poignancy of dealing with an autistic individual. However, while those intentions coming from a meaningful place of good intentions, the end result of the feature gets quite messy and tone deaf; finding Sia’s direction for the entire middling at best and disappointing at worst, especially with her inexperience at directing a feature film, a wonky script, pacing issues, a formulaic narrative, underutilized acting talents, and some very questionable decisions concerns autism depictions in the movie from its cast / depiction of its main lead to its several insensitive scenes of handling autism. Personally, this movie was bad. I definitely get where Sia was going with this project, but its all done in half-baked effort with some moments that I felt were considerably wrong. Of course, I’m talking about the casting Ziegler in the lead role as well as the carelessness of Sia’s direction of depicting autism. As one can summarize from this review, my recommendation for this movie is a solid “skip it” as, despite the attempts made, the movie just isn’t worth your time. It’s not unwatchable, but it will just leave a bad taste in your mouth after viewing it. In the end, Music is felt a flat-out bad movie that, while good intentions are promising, leaves its viewers in the utter bewilderment of how a project like this could get made and almost stands as a cautionary tale of sorts of how good intentions can get muddled and portrayed in such a poor light.
1.5 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: February 12th, 2021
Reviewed On: March 3rd, 2021
Music is 107 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug material, brief violence, and strong language