Well, typing that string of words wasn’t on my 2020 bingo card. The singer-songwriter Sia, who this summer notably confused Cardi B and Nicki Minaj then decided the rappers were feuding (they weren’t), has resumed mystifying with the trailer drop of Music, which is being billed as her feature film directorial debut with an intended IMAX release in February 2021. Now you know what your first stop will be after getting your covid vaccine. :)
It’s such a modern experience to watch something that just dropped and think, “Will the person who made this end up having to apologize?” In fact, it’s not the first time I’ve wondered, “Will Sia end up having to apologize?” Sia’s music-video avatar and Dance Moms alum Maddie Ziegler plays a teenager named Music who is described in the movie’s press release as “a teenager with special needs,” and about whom a neighbor character Ebo (Leslie Odom, Jr.) says things like, “She can understand everything you are saying to her,” and, “She sees the world in a completely different way from us.” A cropped-haired Kate Hudson plays her half-sister/guardian.
As always, Ziegler is clearly not half-stepping with this portrayal. It’s a physical performance. She is certainly attempting to embody the disability to which she has been assigned (the movie’s press release keeps the nature of Music’s condition vague, though it’s been previously reported that her character is autistic). Even from a one-minute glimpse, Music throttles you with whimsy the way other movies assault your senses with horror and misery (a shot of sunny side up eggs on a plate being punctuated by a ketchup smile would seem to say it all, though it’s hardly all that Music is saying). There is little doubt that this is a “positive”/well-intentioned depiction of harmony among diverse people.
And yet, such a bold physical transformation risks violating good taste at minimum. Ziegler told Marie Claire she watched documentaries and YouTube videos to prepare. “What I realized during this film is that everyone on the spectrum is different,” she said. “Everyone is unique and beautiful in their own way.” Ziegler is portraying a way of living that clearly deviates greatly from hers, which on one hand is what acting is, and on the other begs questions about disability representation in the able-bodied world of movie-making. Regarding The Upside, in which Bryan Cranston played a quadriplegic character, Maysoon Zayid, an actor with cerebral palsy, told The Washington Post: “We, as disability advocates, have been fighting against non-disabled actors playing visibly disabled character for decades now... We don’t feel like physical disability can be mimicked, can be played, can be mastered.” Looks like Sia, et. al., are giving it a shot anyway.
Update (2:33 pm): This post has been altered to reflect that the character is described as having “special needs” in the press release for Music. This was unclear and taken for granted in the post’s original iteration. The use of the term “special needs” is discouraged in the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s style guide: “The word ‘special’ in relationship to those with disabilities is now widely considered offensive because it euphemistically stigmatizes that which is different.” While it could be argued that the use of this term in the press release reflects the generic way in which disability is portrayed in the Music trailer, only explicit statement would have made that parallel intelligible. I regret the error.