Movies

Sia’s movie debut is stirring up controversy. Here’s why

Ever since “Chandelier” singer Sia announced her plans to make a movie-musical back in 2015, fans of the singer have been waiting for a peek at the highly anticipated project. They finally got their chance on Nov. 20, 2020, when the Australian performer tweeted the first trailer for the film, which is set for IMAX limited release in February 2021. 

Starring Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Sia’s protégé Maddie Ziegler, Music is a two-fold project: a movie-musical featuring 10 original songs from the singer and songwriter, which will also be released on their own as an album. And while many were initially overjoyed about Sia’s upcoming release and directorial debut, things quickly took a turn in a different direction once fans discovered the film’s premise. The film centers around Music, a non-verbal autistic girl played by Ziegler, and her new guardian Zu, played by Hudson. 

Sia’s tweet immediately received a flurry of responses that criticized the trailer’s portrayal of autism, as well as Sia’s choice to cast an allistic (non-autistic) actress in the lead role. “It’s a mighty shame that someone with such a colossal platform is using it to exclude disabled and neuro diverse actors from their own narratives. I’ve been a long time fan of your work, so this is really disappointing,” tweeted writer and physical performance coach Tome Levi. Rather than using the opportunity as a teachable moment, Sia doubled down — and the result was anything but pretty.

Sia defended her choice not to cast an autistic lead

After the criticism over the teaser-trailer for Music, Sia fired off a series of tweets defending the project and claiming that she did work with neuroatypical people for the film — but her words only served to upset fans more. Laden with expletives, one of the tweets also angered members of the trans community and sex workers. “I cast thirteen neuroatypical people, three trans folk, and not as f**king prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses and singers,” Sia tweeted in an attempt to explain her casting choices. “F**king sad nobody’s even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place.”

One Twitter user responded: “Here’s how this reads to me: neuroatypical & trans individuals deserve to be supporting actors but not the leads in their own narratives.” They added that it’s “sad that you’re on the defensive from a community you’re ‘trying’ to support. A heart in the right place does not = the right decision.”

Sia also went on to defend her choice not to cast an autistic actress in the lead role: “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie.” Unfortunately, this explanation only seemed to worsen the situation further. The National Autistic Society even chimed in, writing, “Sia has got this wrong. There are so many talented autistic actors out there.” A frustrated Sia eventually accused one autistic actor of being a “bad actor.” And that’s not all.

Sia worked with a controversial autism charity

Sia also angered many fans at her refusal to use the word “disabled,” a term that is embraced by the disabled community. In a tweet reply to a comment by actress Bronagh Waugh, Sia stated, “I’ve never referred to music as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said, and casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.” She also claimed she “spent three f**king years” researching for the film, after yet another user questioned her judgment and said that “it’s very condescending to say it would be cruel to consult a disabled actor.”

Many also took umbrage with Sia’s decision to work with the organization Autism Speaks, a nonprofit which has courted controversy over the years for allegedly viewing autism as a disease that can be “cured,” rather than as a neurological difference. (In February 2020, The Washington Post cited a damning ad released by the org in 2009, which likened autism to a “silent and sinister killer” and asserted autism “works faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined.” The same ad claimed that autism will cause divorce among parents with autistic children, lead families into financial ruin, and “rob [parents] of [their] children and dreams.”)

Sia claimed casting Maddie was 'more compassionate'

Despite an overwhelmingly negative response, Sia continued to defend casting Maddie Ziegler, who was announced as the project’s star when it was first announced in 2015. Ziegler and Sia have had a longstanding relationship — Sia cast the former Dance Moms child star as the principal dancer in the music video for her 2014 single “Chandelier,” and they’ve been tight ever since. But the main reason for Ziegler’s casting, according to Sia, was that the first-time director felt it was “more compassionate.”

“I did try,” Sia tweeted to one detractor, stating she cast an unnamed autistic actress before settling on Ziegler for the part of Music. “It felt more compassionate to use Maddie. That was my call.” (It is unclear whether this casting switch happened before the project was announced.)

Sia then went on to state that she based the project “completely on my neuro atypical friend,” adding that the unnamed friend “found it too stressful being non verbal, and I made this movie with nothing but love for him and his mother.”

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