There’s a conventional truism about musicals that basically says: If they’re constructed so that you could take all the songs out and nothing about the narrative or emotional impact of the rest of the show would be at all affected, maybe you’re doing it wrong. That brings us to “Music,” the first feature film from the pop star Sia, which was conceived as a drama about romance, addiction, redemption and, yes, autism that just happens to have more than a dozen musical fantasy numbers pop up for the ride, in sometimes arbitrary spots. As another pop star just sang, music makes the people come together, but making the two distinct sides of “Music” come together is tougher than a first-time director might have bargained for.
Not very many people are looking to Sia’s movie to see how it does or doesn’t reinvent the movie musical form. More are curious to see how “Music” lives up or down to the controversies preceding it, which became heightened when Sia took to Twitter a few months ago to defend casting her teenaged friend (and music-video muse) Maddie Ziegler in the title role, even though the character Music is well on the non-verbal end of the autism spectrum.
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Sia’s defensiveness spawned countless instructive or just angry online debates about whether it should ever be appropriate anymore to cast the abled as the disabled (a term Sia proudly noted that she would never use, only to be informed by many in the autism community that they much prefer it to “special,” the singer-director’s term of choice). Wherever one stands, it’s pretty difficult to watch “Music” without spending Ziegler’s entire time on screen thinking about how accurate her learned mannerisms are and whether she got a fair shake from the Twitterverse, Sia or both.
But it wouldn’t really have taken all this divisive web chatter to make a viewer focus in on how well the young actor imitates the tics and manner of someone with fairly severe autism. The movie itself, in its opening minutes, goes right from an establishing shot of the character in her bed to its first elaborate musical sequence, “Oh Body,” which has Ziegler navigating some kind of colorful maze, joined by a host of dancers, singing and pulling off fast, furious and tight moves. It’s actually quite a good, impressive number — but it has the immediate effect of reminding the audience that this character is being played by an actor who has no limitations in singing and dancing up a storm.
For better or worse, the film turns out to be a lot less about the Music character than it seems it will be in its first half-hour or so. Not that Sia has any intention of abandoning her; there are a lot more musical numbers to come, ostensibly set in her surreal inner world. But in the IRL drama, she’s mostly a mechanism that causes her sister, a drug dealer and recovering alcoholic played by Kate Hudson, to repeatedly mess up and learn from her mistakes … and to be gently and very gradually swept into the helpful arms of Leslie Odom Jr., an African man who’s dealing with some later-to-be-revealed serious problems of his own.
After the movie gets off to a pretty rough start with a focus on Ziegler’s not always credible-feeling mixture of panic attacks and sense of wonder, it settles into a mid-section that is its most beguiling stretch, as Hudson’s Zu and Odom’s Ebo loosen up their fears and restraints and have extended scenes together that feel like expert improvisation, however scripted they might have been. These are characters aware enough of their own damage, but so in need of human warmth, that their banter and badinage feels like a cozy, cautious state of pre-flirting. There are so few disabled characters on screen that it feels wrong to say that “Music” is at its best when the title character is moved further to the margins, but with Odom and Hudson feeling so real and Ziegler’s character always being a reminder of the movie’s artifice, that’s just how it is. You might even find yourself wondering if the movie would work just fine if the music and Music had both gotten cut at the screenplay stage.
Which is not to say that the musical numbers aren’t any good, even if they do serve an arguably extraneous purpose. At those regularly scheduled dozen-plus moments when the movie does turn back into Sia’s new “video album,” the energy these pop-up sequences bring is something that carries you through the drearier Sibling of a Disabled Person Learns Responsibility moments that pepper the first and final acts. If you’ve seen Sia’s music videos before, you probably already have a sense of where you’ll fall on the adore-to-abhor scale with these numbers, which put the characters in indescribably weird costumes — the puffier and more outsized, the better — on unreal sets that put a candy-colored coating on surrealism.
When it comes to furthering the drama, there’s not much purpose to having a “Pennies From Heaven” conceit OD on Day-Glo. But the sight of Odom shedding his “Hamilton”/”One Night in Miami” dignity to sing an entire solo number in a pair of pants with a 100-inch-or-so waist — as if Sia and company wanted to one-up David Byrne’s “Stop Making Sense” big suit — is kind of its own reward. A song like that feels like a cheat: Aren’t the musical numbers supposed to represent the Music character’s hidden world, not everybody else’s?
Taken from moment to moment, with some enjoyable ones along the way, “Music” is not the complete disaster its four-year stint in the can would suggest. But in the last stages, it’s not doing itself that many favors as it veers toward predictable crises and resolutions for the two verbal characters. The fact that there’s a recurring subplot with a young teen boxer who barely even meets any of the other characters, and that actors like Henry Rollins and Kathy Najimy appear on screen for only a matter of seconds yet get featured billing, makes you wonder how busy the four credited editors got over the last four years.
While Sia portrays Music as grinning and rocking out to her own frequency at almost all times, Hudson delivers a grounded — and grounding — performance, resisting the actorly cliches of a street tough who’s forced to grow up to give us a character whose early punky smirks tell us there’s already a warm and wizened woman within. She deserves her own movie, and as “Music” increasingly turns out not to have any idea what do with its autistic character, Hudson almost kind of gets one.
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