In 2014, “Dance Moms” reality star Maddie Ziegler rose to a whole new level of fame after starring in the music video for nine time Grammy nominee Sia‘s critically acclaimed hit song, “Chandelier”. Since then, the teenager’s career has continued to soar with her appearing in films, television, concerts, covering fashion magazines and even releasing her own memoir, “The Maddie Diaries”. Ziegler and pop star Sia had continued to collaborate on projects together, with Ziegler accompanying Sia on tours and starring in the artists other music videos like “Elastic Heart” and “Cheap Thrills”. After working alongside one another for the last few years, Sia and Ziegler have developed an exceptionally close bond. So much so that the teenager considers the musician as a godmother.
Now comes the pairs latest collaboration, a feature length film called “Music”, which has been nominated for best picture (musical or comedy) at the 2021 Golden Globes. It is the directorial debut for Sia, who also serves as the producer, co-writer and has written the 10 tracks for the films soundtrack. Filmed back in mid 2017, “Music” has finally seen the light of day after much delays one of them included the films editing which took three years, as Sia wanted it to be “the best movie it could be”. Other delays were caused by the films controversy. But to understand it’s controversy, first you must know what exactly “Music” is about.
Kate Hudson plays Zu, a free spirit who is estranged from her family and is struggling to get sober from drugs and alcohol. On top of Zu trying to get sober, she finds herself becoming the sole guardian of her teenaged autistic half sister, known to everyone as Music (played by Maddie Ziegler). Their grandmother who has recently passed away left a written plea for Zu to look after and take care of Music. This only seems impossible as Zu is even barely able to take care of herself, let alone her sister who needs constant care. Naturally she struggles with this new responsibility, but soon learns that life’s obstacles are made easier with a little help from fellow neighbors George (played by Hector Elizondo) and Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr., who recently played Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami”).
This brings us to the films first controversy. Just let me ask anyone reading this. Should non disabled actors play disabled characters? While the casting of able-bodied actors portraying disabled characters is as old as cinema itself. The disability community thinks otherwise and demands that disabled actors are to play every disabled role and there is no if, ands or buts about it. I completely get it and understand that playing a role of someone with a disability is a very sensitive issue and it’s easy to slip up and do something wrong that will offend any one with a disability.
That was exactly the case with Maddie Ziegler, who had much hesitation to take on the role of Music in fear she would offend anyone in the disabled community. The backlash to Sia and her film, isn’t so much in Maddie Ziegler’s performance and while there is no insensitivity within her portrayal. Sia had garnered the considerable flak for casting Ziegler as the autistic teenager. While the autism community as well as others suggested that Sia use someone who actually knows what it feels like to be Music and to cast an individual who actually has autism.
Personally I’m fine having an able-bodied actor to play the role of someone with a disability. That’s an actors job to embody themselves in a role of someone else and as long as the said actor or actress doesn’t cross the line to mock or disrespect the disabled community, then I see no problem. For those who see “Music”, will see that Ziegler doesn’t do either of that and she is absolutely terrific in the role. Also keep in mind she was only 14 years old at the time and to put on such a committed performance is astounding.
At first I struggled with Maddie Ziegler’s performance, thinking that she was giving it too much and laying it on thick. But I grew to love Maddie and applaud her for giving such a compelling performance of technical skill and deep resonance. Some critics will and have already bemoaned it, but there is no doubt that Ziegler’s nuanced performance and Sia’s interpretation of Music’s worldview prove to be deeply moving.
The other controversy is to do with the scenes where Music is having to be restrained because she’s having bits of outbursts from the autism and can’t be handled. This can be highly triggering for some people in the community, as well as for others who aren’t okay with seeing a young distressed girl being restrained and smothered by someone bigger than her. Odom’s character Ebo is the first seen to do this within the movie, while Kate Hudson’s Zu does the same thing later in the film.
When Zu first sees Ebo doing this, Zu asks him with tears in her eyes: “If he’s hurting her?” and he replies that he isn’t and that he’s simply “crushing her with love”. He does this as if it’s normal and as if Music is used to this, even though she still struggles and is clearly still distressed during this. Sia has commented, apologised and given her explanations to these matters. She also announced that future screenings of the film would be preceded by a warning label before the film and would have both scenes involving the restraints removed from all film prints. Although the digital copy I purchased from Vudu, still had both scenes so not sure if there was an agreement to keep them in after all?
Sia’s film is very intriguing in the way she puts it all together, by including transitions into musical interludes which showcase Sia’s creativity behind a lot of her music videos and her sense of style and visuals. The inserted musical and dance scenes give us a visual sense of what exactly is going on inside Music’s head. These particular musical numbers are colorful, vibrant, wild and expertly choreographed by Ryan Heffington. His choreography is a compelling pitch between modern art and the avant garde that was post Bob Fosse. While the film as a whole is beautifully captured, so is Sia’s dynamic and catchy soundtrack. I even picked up a copy (yes an actual physical compact disc!) at my local Target and it’s sure to be one of the years best soundtracks and albums.
The film was originally to have no musical numbers and once it was subsequently made into a partial musical. It caused the film’s budget to increase from $4 million to $16 million. The sequences are vibrant flights of whimsy in which Music comprehends her reality. It is an inspired creative choice for Sia to make, but these sequences are crucial in playing a part in helping the audience understand Music’s emotional state.
The character of Zu played by Kate Hudson was originally planned to be male and was to be portrayed by Shia LaBeouf, and then Jonah Hill. After Sia saw an Instagram post of Kate Hudson singing, she cast the Oscar nominee and changed the sex of the role. Kate Hudson sporting a shaved head, puts in one of her best and if not the best performance of her career as the troubled Zu. This is a movie star making turn for Hudson, she is astonishing and completely burns up the screen. Thankfully she is being recognized for her performance in having received a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a musical or comedy.
My only problem with her character Zu is that for a character who is supposed to be having all these problems with drugs, alcohol and life in general. How is it that she is so beautiful, not even a single blemish on her face and still in such great physical shape with such a toned physique? Hudson does her finest work, but she simply looks too healthy given how Sia is striving for realism in its non musical scenes.
That also brings me to my next gripe with her film in seeing Sia’s take on big city life that is every bit as rose colored and pretty as her dance numbers. Her depiction of LA, is an only in the movies kind of LA neighborhood, where street vendors shout out your name with a smile and drug dealers look and act like the campy comedic actor Ben Schwartz (who is completely miscast). But when her movie dips into the harsh realities of alcoholic’s fall from the wagon, the loneliness of life that an HIV sufferer goes through or the horror of domestic abuse, the impact she brings is appropriately jarring.
Despite the film’s controversy, I think Sia’s film is a beautiful piece of art and a great accomplishment for a first time director who makes an incredibly impressive filmmaking debut. With co-screenwriter and children’s author Dallas Clayton, Sia’s articulation of life of someone suffering from autism has credibility and has a vision that is successful thanks to her two lead actress’ dedications. Sia’s “Music” has heart, integrity, artistry and while I don’t agree to most of the controversy surrounding the film, nor did I see anything truly disrespectful. Sia has done a splendid job and “Music” is to become one of the years best films led by two star making performances and an incredible filmmaking debut.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)