I saw hundreds of movies last year, I get every FYC email, and I follow it closely. But I’d never heard of Music until a little over a week ago, and the movie, even in this strange year of a pandemic and extended awards eligibility windows, was completely off the awards radar, until it pulled in Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress.
The film, the feature directorial debut of the singer Sia, arrives this week, with an IMAX release Wednesday and theatrical and VOD bows to follow on Friday. However you see Music, it's a massive misfire, and those Golden Globe nominations are embarrassing, even by the standards of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
The film, shot in 2017, is called Music not only because it's a musical, but because Music is also the name of the main character. Music (Maddie Ziegler, who often performs as Sia's muse, sidekick, and mini-me) plays an autistic teenager who, after her grandmother (Mary Kay Place) dies, is reunited with her estranged half-sister (Kate Hudson) whose name is… Zu (short for Kazu.) The recent Justin Timberlake movie Palmer was also about an unconventional bond between an ex-con adult and a troubled child, but that movie successfully sold the pseudo-parental connection thanks to skillful writing and acting. Music doesn’t do that.
Zu is an ex-con who was a drug addict until very recently and is still a drug dealer. It's clear that this person has no business as the sole custodian of a teenager with special needs, but the film segues into an "it takes a village"-type situation, with an assist from a neighbor (Leslie Odom, Jr., doing an African accent) and the building's super (Hector Elizondo), each with their own sad backstories. Neither character serves any purpose other than serving Music and Zu.
That premise has enough plot for about 30 or 40 minutes, but Music pushes itself to a nearly two-hour running time by occasionally stopping dead in its tracks for lengthy musical interludes. These mostly feature Sia's music and various surreal touches, while looking similar to the singer's videos and stage performances. It's supposed to represent, I guess, the inner life of Music and the other characters, but Lars Von Trier did a similar idea much better nearly 20 years ago with Bjork in Dancer in the Dark.
The musical numbers are marked by popping colors, strange costume choices, and aggressive mugging. You hear Leslie Odom, Jr., sing, but if that's what you're looking for there are two other, much better places to see that right now on streaming services, in Hamilton and One Night in Miami.
Kate Hudson gives the worst kind of Oscar-bait performance, shaving her head, playing an addict, and yelling a lot. I didn't think anyone would debase themselves worse for the chance at an Oscar this year than Glenn Close and Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy, but I guess that's what happens when Oscar season extends into February.
As for Maddie Ziegler, there's a major controversy, in that some in the autistic community disapprove of a non-autistic actress playing an autistic character. These distinctions can be dicey—it’s acting, after all—but the film's handling of the Music character is a disaster on every level. Ziegler's nearly entirely nonverbal performance indicates she was given little direction from the director, beyond told to grin widely for nearly two hours.
Last year's Apple TV+ series Little Voice, while no great shakes, hit some of the same notes as Music. It was also a New York-set musical, and featured a famous singer (Sara Bareilles) as a behind-the-scenes creative force, and also an autistic character, Kevin Valdez's Louie. The difference was Louie was actually played by an autistic actor, and his character, a young guy on the spectrum who was obsessed with Broadway, ended up as the best part in the show.
Sia is a talented performer, who has made some good music and directed some decent videos. One of her songs, “Breathe Me,” formed the basis of one of the best montage sequences in the history of television, at the end of the Six Feet Under finale in 2004. But her career as a feature director is off to an inauspicious start because Music is a mawkish, insulting film.