You might be forgiven for thinking this is a musical, or at least one giant music video. I mean, with Sia at the director’s helm, you already know what to expect. Dancing? Check. Surrealist sets? Check. Maddie Ziegler? MOST DEFINITELY. What I didn’t expect is how this film takes on some pretty difficult themes with surprising boldness.
Ziegler plays Music, a girl on the autistic spectrum. Her life is a prescribed list of activities: breakfast (two eggs with tomato sauce), hair braiding, a walk to the library, TV, then bed. These activities give her comfort and are facilitated by her grandmother. That is until her grandmother dies suddenly. Music is left in the dubious care of Zu, her alcoholic half-sister (Kate Hudson) who struggles with adulting and whose main source of income is drug dealing.
With such heavy themes, I’m immediately nervous about how this film will turn out. Music videos are one thing. A full length film involving disability, addiction and death is another. Ziegler’s portrayal of a person on the autism spectrum has already been under fire for misrepresentation.
What I find though is that the film actually isn’t about these individual topics. Instead it returns me to a time when I believed in the good in everyone and that love and family was just around the corner. Sia’s music-video style comes to life as we consider the different characters’ points of view through oversized costumes and dance. The film reads more like a stage production with its quick fades between realism and surrealism. It makes me see that taking the time to see someone else’s world can be a very rewarding thing. A very difficult thing. But a very good thing. Make no mistake: a documentary on life with disability it most definitely is not; but as an analogy about the magic of community, it’s incredibly refreshing.
Ziegler is well-matched by Kate Hudson and the beautiful beautiful Leslie Odom Jr. (sorry, is my fan girl showing?). Hudson, sporting a buzz cut, brings a vulnerability to the hard-hitting Zu. She’s the character who is her own worst enemy. Her life is a repeated dance of taking one step forward and two steps back. She barely has enough maturity to look after herself, let alone Music. It’s great seeing Hudson take on such a rough character and I’m glad to say that she does it successfully. Yin to her yang is Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.) who plays that even tougher role of being the sweetest guy alive. Ebo is one of the many people around Music who form a community that looks out for her. I’m relieved to see that Odom Jr. is given his opportunity to dance and sing too, which is what we (I) have come to know and love him for.
Halfway through the film, I realize that I’ve been teetering on the edge of tears this whole time for various reasons. I’m tearing from sadness. Then joy. And then for plain unknown reasons or perhaps just raw emotion. I’m not a cryer and this is a strange feeling. But I like it. The movie is a mix of darkness and, weirdly enough, fun. Ridiculous costumes and dance numbers spar with weighty topics but they never seem out of place. Instead, like a macabre theatre show, it entertains while also taking you to consider some pretty hidden places.
Three-quarters in and I submit to a quiet cry – the kind where your eyes leak intermittently into your popcorn and you hope your neighbour doesn’t see you wiping your nose with your sleeve. It seems Music has done what it came to do. I leave feeling like when life hits you hard and you don’t have any answers, all can be solved with love and family. Maybe that’s too simplistic and goo-goo-sweet for some. But if life truly turned out that way, I wouldn’t be one to complain.