In the controversial ‘Music,’ first-time director Sia finds both dissonance and harmony
Though it’s already controversial, “Music” is an auspicious directorial debut by pop star Sia. It’s a musical starring Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr. and Maddie Ziegler in which characters generally break into song only in their heads, and impressionistic sets and choreography are used to express thoughts and feelings. While the movie is hit and miss, under the rookie’s direction, several veteran actors still turn in solid work.
Hudson plays alcoholic troublemaker Zu, who deals drugs and seems ambivalent toward her own recovery. When her grandmother (Mary Kay Place) dies, she’s left to care for her much-younger sister, Music (Ziegler), a person with autism who has intensive support needs. They’re helped by the next-door neighbor, Ebo (Odom), a handsome former boxer from Ghana.
“Music” isn’t plot-driven; several story threads are abruptly dropped and key facts left unexplained. Rather, it’s about the characters’ private worlds, as expressed through song and dance, and Zu’s slow turn away from a happy-go-lucky dead-end road to a shared journey. The exterior world feels real and lived in; a modern, solid big city to contrast with the candy-colored riot of sound and movement in the musical sequences.
“Music” is sure to spark impassioned debates about ableism since an actress not on the spectrum plays the title character (Sia fans will remember Ziegler from videos including “Chandelier,” which have totaled more than 5 billion views). However, the character is not tokenized. Rather, the movie’s treatment of her is akin to a pop-musical version of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” As the first song relates, her body doesn’t obey her in the physical world, but the interludes convey the vibrancy of her perceptions and her emotional world. It would be hard to argue the film’s heart isn’t in the right place.
Not all the musical scenes work. Sometimes their visuals are arresting, especially in the sequence for the title song. Other times, they seem earthbound — either appropriately for someone free-associating an interpretation of the real world, or as if constricted by budget. Choreographer Ryan Heffington‘s use of extreme facial expressions, likewise, can be illuminating or grating.
Notably, Sia has coaxed out uniformly strong performances. The film earned rather unexpected nominations for best picture (musical or comedy) and lead actress for Hudson from the Golden Globes, but this is Hudson’s most memorable work since her ballyhooed turn in “Almost Famous.” It’s transformative, grounded despite her character’s swings; conscious of where she’s broken inside. And Hudson can really sing. Her musical performances are assured, magnetic.
Odom, of course, is a Tony winner and a strong Oscar candidate this year for “One Night in Miami.” The performance in “Music” ranks with his best film work. He’s externally centered and restrained, which is right for the boxer who has stayed positive despite being TKO’d by life. As the initially enigmatic neighbor Felix, newcomer Beto Calvillo is compelling and sympathetic.
Several of the songs are quite good and their presentations appealing. The title track is one of the best original songs within this year’s Oscar eligibility period, though it wasn’t shortlisted for the final nominations. “Music” doesn’t always hit the right notes, but don’t fault the artists for taking big swings.
Rated: PG-13 for thematic content, drug material, brief violence and strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: at select IMAX theaters one night only Feb. 10; at Laemmle Theaters via virtual cinema, on demand and at the Vineland Drive-In Feb. 12; at the Arena Cinelouge Pop-Up Drive-In in Hollywood Feb. 19.
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