Music: A Colorful, Well-Written film that discusses Important Autism Issues
by Yuval Levental
Did most of the critics even watch the actual film? Rating: five stars (out of five)
I find Sia’s songs to be very interesting and insightful, and I thought it was great that she created a film that focused on Music, a character with severe autism. Many high-functioning autism advocates opposed the film, saying that Music should be played by an autistic person. I wasn’t even sure how most high-functioning autistic people would be able to play someone with profound impairments, as their life experiences are very different in many significant ways.
I wrote a letter to Sia in support of her decision (https://corticalchauvinism.com/2020/12/08/a-letter-to-sia-from-an-autistic-fan-thank-you-for-representing-a-girl-with-severe-autism/). Not only did she respond, my letter was featured in a national article about the controversy (https://web.archive.org/web/20210119224539/https://twitter.com/Sia/status/1351662052738142210 and https://www.today.com/popculture/sia-apologizes-depiction-autism-movie-music-t207974).
However, I was actually nervous about watching the film since most of the reviews were extremely negative, despite that this is the first film that she has directed. The Rotten Tomatoes rating, for instance, is only 16%. Most of the criticism claimed that the movie misrepresented autism, was extremely disorganized, or was even harmful towards autistic individuals. Many of the reviews seemed overly harsh to me. Sia said that she filmed all the scenes in 2017, and worked on the film for three years. I definitely see the results of her effort.
At first, Zu seems insensitive towards Music, even wanting to send her away. However, Zu is a recovering drug addict who might not have the ability to take care of someone with significant challenges. Ebo, her neighbor, also had a sibling with severe autism, and he encourages her to stay with Music. The two grow closer throughout several adventures. Zu takes Music on walks, plays with her in an inflatable pool, and learns more about her challenges. Towards the end of the movie, Zu relapses and almost gives Music up to an institution. However, at the last minute, Zu runs away with music, and they attend the wedding of Ebo’s brother. Everyone celebrates together, and it seems that they are closer than ever.
There is also a subplot with another autistic individual named Felix. Felix and Music notice each other on the streets, and also seem to like each other. His father wants him to become a boxing champion, but Felix is very gentle and is more interested in dance. When he refuses to fight in a boxing match, his father becomes very angry and severely hurts him.
I could relate to some of Music’s challenges. At the beginning, Music deals with sensory overstimulation from the summer heat. She tends to follow a very structured routine, and any change in routine brings in a “barrage of new stimuli” for her. However, her range of action is very limited, and she repeats very specific phrases focused on making food, braiding hair, and so on. She has difficulty walking properly, which also somewhat affects me, but her difficulty in this aspect is far more pronounced.
One aspect of my autism is that I am sensitive to disorganized stories and plots, and when I watched the film yesterday, I actually thought that the plot was extremely coherent, and that the dances blended in very well with the rest of the story. Some of the colors were overwhelming, but I liked most of the colors and found the dances to be very innovative. I thought “1+1” would be about math, but it is actually about two people being together.
Scenes involving restraints were a concern. However, I think a lot of reviews exaggerated the severity of the restraints, as the restraints were more of firm hugs that didn’t put too much pressure. Additionally, Sia apologized for not including warning labels for these scenes.
Overall, the film’s subject matter is very difficult to watch because of the sensitive content, but achieves a rare balance between coherence and unpredictability. I suspect that the real reason that this film has very low ratings is because Music doesn’t represent Hollywood dreams of a savant, a math genius, or a successful surgeon. She represents the challenges of severe autism, along with the people that learn to appreciate her unique way of being.