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How much is singer Sia’s controversial autism film “Music” worth?

For her first film as a director, Australian author, songwriter and singer Sia, 45, tackles a particularly delicate subject: non-verbal autism. A challenge that is all the more difficult as Music is a musical. Sia started out with a good intention: to offer “a sensitive representation of an autistic child“with a dose of the marvelous, and to make the viewer walk towards the acceptance of the difference. But hell is paved with good intentions and what had to be a”reinvention“musical comedy and an ode to difference turns out to be a sad failure.

Music it is the first name of the character at the heart of the story, an orphan autistic teenager whom music helps to live, and whom her grandmother cares for with love. When the latter suddenly dies of a heart attack, Music (Maddie Ziegler) has no other family than her half-sister Kazu (Kate Hudson), an ex-alcoholic and drug dealer. Imagining that there is some money to recover, this disturbing tutor bursts into Music’s life and quickly tries to get rid of this atypical little sister. But his heart will soften as he goes along, with the help of Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr), a caring neighbor.

Even before its release, this film was the subject of two violent controversies. The role of Music is indeed played by Maddie Ziegler, the prodigy dancer, muse and alter-ego of Sia since 2014 and the famous clip Chandelier to 2 billion views. A non-autistic person to embody an autistic? This sparked a first outcry. But the most violent controversy came from a gesture made in the film on the young autistic to calm her during a crisis of acute agitation: this technique called restraint would be dangerous for autistic people, and could even be fatal, this which has prompted more than 30,000 people (to date) to sign a petition calling for the film’s release to be canceled.

Still, the film mostly misses its subject, autism. If we feel that the young Maddie Ziegler has worked on her gestures, her facial expressions and her character with meticulousness, managing moreover regularly to make Music endearing and touching, she delivers an interpretation that is necessarily uneasy because it is caricatural. Then you hardly learn anything about nonverbal autism. What are Music’s desires and feelings? How to communicate with the adolescent, reassure her and take care of her in the best possible way?
We just notice that Music sticks to its routine: fried eggs for breakfast, braiding the obligatory mats in stride, followed by a small daily walk in the neighborhood. We also understand that she perceives certain things in an atypical way – a great sonic acuity and an altered vision of reality, in particular. Perceptions that are supposed to represent the sung and choreographed parts, in the pop and shimmering style of Sia’s clips, which punctuate the film.

Problem: although neat and deploying a vivid imagination, these clips seem totally external to the story, detached from it. The film does not manage to reconcile reality and fantasy, to create a fluid dialogue between the narration and the clips supposed to represent the imaginary world with which Music apprehends the world. They often fall like a hair on the soup, and seem to have for only function that to sell in the tread a new album of Sia made up of songs “inspired” from the film.

Only positive point: the big sister Kazu, played by Kate Hudson, who shaved her head for the occasion, and her adorable neighbor Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr). Kate Hudson, who was nominated for the Golden Globes for this role, is quite convincing as a “bad girl” more sensitive than she would like, on the road to redemption, through love. A romantic character who ultimately takes up more space in the film than that of the autistic teenager.

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Actress Kate Hudson in the movie "Music" de Sia.  (MERRICK MORTON)

Besides the interpretation of Kate Hudson, there may be a reason for the aptness of this character: Sia is, by her own admission, a former alcoholic and drug addict who managed to detoxify herself completely. It was even during her sessions at Alcoholics Anonymous, years ago, that she met the young autistic who made her want to tell this story. Too bad she could one day have thought “naively that making a movie would be like making a very long clip“.

“Music” by Sia is available on VOD from March 29, 2021

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