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Creative Sensemaker: The curious case of Sia’s disaster movie

Thursday 18 February 2021

Welcome to Creative Sensemaker, our weekly guide to all that’s best in culture and the arts – movies, streaming, books, music, galleries and much else


Some movies are terribly important, while others are importantly terrible. Sia’s directorial debut, Music (Apple, Sky VOD), definitely falls into the latter category: it is an Olympic-class, 20kg turkey, an affront to the viewer and to those it claims to represent. But – by virtue of the furious controversy it is already generating and where that argument now leads – the film ought, inadvertently, to have a positive cultural impact.

In her directorial debut, the Australian singer-songwriter offers a saccharine story that need not detain us long: Zu (Kate Hudson), a drug dealer who is struggling with her own sobriety, becomes the reluctant guardian of her autistic half-sister, Music (Maddie Ziegler), after her grandmother’s sudden death. A neighbour, Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr), tries to help out, and he and Zu are romantically drawn to one another. 

The film is punctuated by day-glo musical fantasy scenes that desperately want to pay homage to Bob Fosse but owe more in style and sophistication to the Teletubbies. Yet this is an incidental travesty compared to the movie’s principal defect, which is the disastrous portrayal of Music and of her autism. 

From the earliest scenes, Ziegler – who is neurotypical – resembles an amateur performer who has watched Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Tom Cruise’s autistic brother, Raymond, in Rain Main (1988), a couple of times, made a few adjustments to suit the contemporary setting, and plunged straight in. Her performance is less than the sum of its parts: a random cluster of tics, groans, spasms, eye-rolling and sudden outbursts that delivers no sense of authenticity or serious research. 

Even more worryingly, the film depicts long-outmoded methods of physical restraint: barely 25 minutes into the film, Ebo is pinning Music to the ground and declaring: “I am crushing her with my love!”. As Zoe Gross, founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network has said: “The autistic community has been fighting for decades to end the use of restraints that traumatise and kill.”

Maddie Ziegler in Music

Why bother with such a film at all? Because the justified outrage it has prompted is leading to a much-needed discussion about the representation of neurodiversity in modern culture. Tens of thousands have already signed a petition demanding that the film be stripped of its Golden Globe nominations (Best Musical/Comedy Picture and Best Musical/Comedy Actress: Kate Hudson).  

Initially, Sia’s response to the criticisms levelled at her and the film on social media and, more generally, by campaign groups, was to double down. “Grrrrrrrrrr,” she tweeted in November. “Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.” 

She has since moderated her tone, promising that the film will henceforth include the disclaimer that “MUSIC in no way condones or recommends the use of restraint on autistic people.”

The upside is that neurodivergent performers are now speaking up – and being listened to. Since Rain Man, there have been many, mostly well-intentioned attempts to depict neurodiversity in film and television: Sean Penn in I Am Sam (2001), Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory (2007-19, Netflix), Julian Feder in A Boy Called Po (2016), Freddie Highmore in The Good Doctor (2017-, Amazon Prime), and Keir Gilchrist in Atypical (2017-, Netflix).

Keir Gilchrist in Atypical

These films and shows have undoubtedly raised awareness. But they also tended to reinforce stereotypes – such as the misapprehension that neurodivergent people are generally savants, with extraordinary cognitive or creative abilities. They also demonstrate the all-important difference between depiction and representation: not a single one of the performers mentioned is himself neurodivergent.

In fact, many Hollywood stars – Daryl Hannah, Dan Aykroyd, Sir Anthony Hopkins – have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Only recently, however, have neurodivergent performers felt able to assert themselves as the actors best-equipped to represent life with autism on screen or on stage. 

In 2017, Micky Rowe made theatrical history as the first neurodivergent actor to play the lead role of Christopher Boone in the Tony Award-winning play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (based on Mark Haddon’s acclaimed 2003 novel). 

Last year, Josh Thomas’s comedy series Everything’s Gonna Be Okay (not yet available in the UK, sadly) became the first such show to feature a neurodivergent performer, Kayla Cromer, who plays Thomas’s 17-year-old autistic half-sister, as a regular cast member. Meanwhile, in her Netflix specials, Nanette and Douglas, the brilliant stand-up Hannah Gadsby interweaves her lived experience of high-functioning autism with a myriad other themes.

As Rowe wrote in November: “I am a talented autistic actor who has been told to my face the exact same words that Sia tweeted to the autistic community. And I am not alone. There are so many incredibly talented autistic actors. But why take my word for it? After being cast in “Curious Incident,” the same people who told me that it couldn’t, or even shouldn’t, be done changed their minds.”

Such are the unforeseeable twists of cultural progress: the paradox of Music is that one of the worst films of the year may yet spawn a breakthrough in creative representation.

There’s still time to book your place at our ThinkIn with the great poet, Carol Ann Duffy, who’ll be discussing Empty Nest, her new anthology of poems on parenthood, families, and letting go (Thursday 18 February, 6:30pm GMT). And don’t forget to sign up to our next Creative Sensemaker Live on Friday 26 February at 6:30pm GMT, at which we’ll be exploring the lockdown phenomenon of simultaneous Twitter streaming – an album, a movie or a must-see television show, enjoyed and commented upon in real-time posts. Staying apart, together, if you like.

Here are this week’s recommendations:

Read

(To buy any of these books, and browse further, click on the title to go to the Tortoise Book Store.)

Open Water – Caleb Azumah Nelson (Penguin)
This eagerly-anticipated debut by the 26-year-old British-Ghanaian writer does not disappoint, tracing the ebb and flow of a relationship between two young people who meet in a South-East London pub – he a photographer, she a dancer. Novels written in the second person can sometimes grate, but Azumah Nelson’s beautiful prose is equal to the challenge and the interweaving of personal and social themes – love, ambition, racism, violence – is achieved with grace and delicacy of touch.

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee – Abraham Riesman (Random House USA Inc)
When the Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee died aged 95 in 2018, his brother Larry Lieber, told Abraham Riesman that “I feel like I’m talking about Charles Foster Kane.” Which is why this unflinching biography should not only interest superhero obsessives – charting, as it does, an American life from the Depression era to the age of CGI and multi-movie franchises. Old feuds (notably Lee’s creative battles with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) are explored in forensic detail, as is the sad descent of a once-mighty mogul to the diminished, scandal-torn figure Lee cut in his final years. But his determination that the Marvel universe should be interlinked and the characters’ storylines interspliced was the seed of what was to become the most successful movie franchise of all time: the 23 films (so far, not counting spin-off television content) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE! The World After Covid-19, ed. Renata Avila and Srecko Horvat (OR Books)
There is no shortage of books plotting a path out of the pandemic, but what appeals about this collection of essays is its eclecticism, radicalism and readiness to think incautiously. With contributions from writers such as Noam Chomsky, Gael Garcia Bernal, Ece Temelkuran, Slavoj Zizek and Shoshana Zuboff, the anthology is a pick’n’mix of intellectual stimulation, provocation and inquiry – and all the better for it. 


Watch

I Care a Lot (19 February, Amazon Prime)
Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage and Dianne Wiest excel in this fine satirical thriller, as grift collides with gangland. Marla Grayson (Pike) has perfected the con of persuading judges to appoint her the “legal guardian” of the elderly (“Playing fair is a joke invented by rich people to keep the rest of us poor”) – or so she thinks, until she meets her match in Jennifer Peterson (Wiest), whose son, Roman (Dinklage) is a seriously menacing mobster. Irresistible.

Pelé (23 February, Netflix)
Directed by Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn, this is much more than a by-the-numbers sports documentary. The only footballer to win three World Cup titles, Pelé, who is now 80, reflects on what it means to become the personification of a nation’s identity: in his case, the very incarnation of Brazilian hope. And the answer is, to say the least, bittersweet: the best part of victory, he says, “isn’t the trophy. It’s the relief.”

Marlene Dietrich at Universal 1940-42 (BFI)
This four-disc box set includes Seven Sinners, The Flame of New Orleans, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh, all released on Blu-ray for the first time in this country. Dietrich’s success opposite James Stewart in Destry Rides Again (1939) transformed her prospects in Hollywood and this quartet of gems is unmissable. As an added treat, there is commentary by the brilliant Pamela Hutchinson, film writer and Tortoise contributor.


Listen

TYRON – Slowthai
Already at the top of the UK charts – supplanting Foo Fighters’ Medicine at Midnight – the Northampton rapper’s second album is a tremendous sonic experience, drawing its title from his real name (Tyron Kaymone Frampton). Slowthai is not to everybody’s taste, often accused of self-aggrandisement – which, let’s face it, is an odd charge to level at a rapper. ‘CANCELLED’, his collaboration with Skepta, is especially good.

Cello Music from Proust’s Salons: Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih
Not, sadly, a newly-discovered recording from the Belle Époque, but the next best thing – an imagined soundtrack to the milieu of Marcel Proust, curated by Isserlis, including works by Saint-Saëns, Franck, Fauré, and Duparc. Pass the madeleines.

Good Light In: FONN
Recommended by Tortoise member, Claire Kennedy, the debut single by FONN (aka Fionn Connolly) manages to be both catchy electro-pop and dappled with an appealing strain of psychedelic otherness. Road music for the cerebral. (Full disclosure: Claire is Fionn’s mum, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong. We also predict great things for FONN).

Please do keep sending in your recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Take care of yourselves – and each other.

Best wishes,

Matthew d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs Getty Images, Netflix, Vertical Entertainment