If Sia’s new movie, Music, hadn’t created such huge controversy, it might have offered some insight into one of pop’s more interesting figures. Her decision to cast her teenage muse, Maddie Ziegler, as a severely autistic teenager when Ziegler does not have autism herself has caused such outcry, it’s surprising the film’s two Golden Globe nominations haven’t been withdrawn. On Twitter there was outrage; on TikTok, autistic teenagers with huge followings watched the trailer (hardly anyone’s seen the film) and predicted how bad it was going to be. In the US, the president of the National Council on Severe Autism, Jill Escher, said the backlash faced by Sia – who has since publicly apologised, and removed some scenes – was a tragedy for the arts and for the autism community. Once upon a time, Rain Man and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape cast buzzy Hollywood actors as characters with autistic traits: it was another age, when those parts were a shoo-in for Oscar nominations: but the Golden Globes’ interest in Music suggests the considerable bubble in which the film was made.
That bubble is the most interesting thing about this unfortunate film. It was a labour of love for Sia: she worked so long on it – three years on the editing – that her child star had grown up by the time it was ready to view. That no one, at any stage in the process, popped their head round the corner and said, “Are you sure you should be doing that in 2021?” is remarkable. Did no one suggest it might be misguided to show the vulnerable teenage heroine being forcibly restrained, by her sister, on the floor a few months after a botched restraint had kicked off a global protest movement? That is the tragedy of Music, really. That no one stepped into Sia’s bubble in all the five years it was being made.
Ziegler, a dance prodigy, was no random casting. She has a specific meaning in the psychology of Sia. Born Sia Kate Isobelle Furler, Sia is an eccentric indie artist from Adelaide, South Australia who became one of the elite class of LA songwriters, writing “Diamonds” for Rihanna and “Perfume” for Britney Spears. As her solo career grew – she had hits with “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” – Sia, awkward with fame, would perform with a wig covering her face and her back to the audience. And then came Ziegler, only 11 when she started working with Sia, in a suite of incredibly choreographed viral videos, her limbs thrown out at all angles, her feet stamping and her mouth gaping in joy. She was a ball of pre-pubescent energy so exciting to watch it could bring tears to your eyes. Sia called her “my inner-freako”.
She was some kind of alter ego for the complicated artist, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and overcame a drink and drug addiction that escalated following the death of her boyfriend in London in 1997. Sia’s been in trouble over her work with Ziegler before: people complained that in the video for “Elastic Heart”, in which Ziegler flung her catsuited body against Shia LeBoeuf in a strange father-daughter psychodrama, verged on the pornographic. “It was so important to me that there was nothing in the choreography that would sexualise her in any way,” she told me in an interview in 2016. “I want to help show that little people can express themselves in a non-sexual way, but still be extremely expressive.” Perhaps the porn was in the eye of the beholder.
“F**king sad nobody’s even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place,” wrote Sia on Twitter, shortly before deleting her account. It took me a long time to get hold of a review copy of a film rapidly turning into a ghost. In one of the ironies of modern journalism, I set out to find out whether there was something in the movie to defend, but it’s impossible to see beyond the fact that it’s not very good, regardless of its casting controversy.
The story is wince-inducingly familiar. Hapless waster, Zu, (Kate Hudson) unexpectedly inherits responsibility for a Challenging Young Person (her autistic sister, whose name is actually Music) and, after a few scrapes, learns to love that responsibility. There is a sexy neighbour, played by Leslie Odom Jr, who conveniently knows a lot about autism. And there’s even a cosy role, in a New York apartment block, for Héctor Elizondo, who played the friendly hotel manager in Pretty Woman.
What’s striking is just how little Ziegler has to play with – because she’s not the main focus of Music at all. Instead (and you suspect this was a problem of that epic editing), Hudson’s character hogs the screen, a drawling, plucky wild-child and ex-addict whose solipsistic world-view (and growing romance with the sexy neighbour) overwhelm the narrative. Music exists under her headphones, trailing along in the wake of her sister. Sia is clearly fascinated by the role music holds in the lives of many people with autism: her lead character’s inner world is suggested via frequent explosions into full-on Sia-style music videos, with dance routines by Ziegler.
But there is no access to Music’s psychology via any other channel, so the pop sequences have a strange, alienating effect. In other scenes, Music seems to hover on the edge of the frame: talked about, but underexplored. It’s a shame that Ziegler has transferred some of the familiar facial tics she employed as the “inner-freako” of Sia’s music videos directly to the autistic role. It undermines the acting, as you’re never truly able to separate Music from that dazzling, dancing girl. (I’m sure her career will recover: she’s already secured a role in Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story.)
Sia has an odd relationship with music. She once said that it is not a pleasure for her – more a need, like shouting. When she arrived in LA she had just seven albums in her possession: she could write in any style, but she didn’t listen to much music herself. She gave herself a crash-course in pop songs and was struck by how simple much pop music is. She creates her hits in a matter of minutes: high in output, she says, and low in quality control. “I’m just trying to show up for work,” she told me. Over time, she’s claimed back her songs and performed them herself but fame makes her neurotic. Sia has said that her debut movie was supposed to be a love letter to carers, but at the end of this confused film I wondered, for a moment, if it was also a metaphor for forces at work in her: former wild-child overcomes demons, shows up for work, shoulders the “responsibility” of music. Maybe. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.