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Sia's film Music was labelled controversial and offensive. The criticism left Sia feeling "suicidal".

This post deals with suicidal ideation and might be triggering for some readers.

Sia Furler has always had a complicated relationship with fame.

The ultra-private Australian singer-songwriter has spent years masking herself from attention with long-fringed wigs and comically large hats.

But despite her best efforts to fend off fame, Sia found herself at the centre of a social media storm. 

It all began when the trailer for Sia's directional debut, Music, was released in late 2020.

Watch the trailer for Sia's film, Music, below. Post continues after video.


Video via Atlantic Films.

Produced, directed and co-written by Sia, Music is a story about a newly sober drug dealer (Kate Hudson) who finds herself the sole guardian of her sister (Maddie Ziegler), a teenager who lives with additional needs.

When the trailer was released, criticism mounted over the casting of Maddie Ziegler, an 18-year-old dancer who achieved worldwide fame through her performances in Sia's music videos. 

On social media, advocates expressed their disappointment the role wasn't given to a neuro-diverse actor. In response, Sia fiercely defended her decision.

"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," she wrote.

In response, one user wrote: "Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that: excuses. The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic."

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"Maybe you're just a bad actor," Sia responded.

In an interview with The Sydney Morning HeraldSia admitted that she "f**ked up" by sending the tweets. "Looking back, I should have just shut up; I know that now," she said.

Why did Sia's movie Music cause controversy?

Although the film received nominations at the Golden Globe Awards, the film was largely panned by critics, receiving overwhelmingly negative reviews.

On website Rotten Tomatoes, the film had an average rating of 3.9/10. The website's critic consensus read: "Offensive in its depiction of autism - and painfully misguided in essentially every respect - Music is a vanity project that begs to be turned down." 

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In reviews, critics described the film as "embarrassingly out of touch".

As Matthew Rosza wrote for Salon, "[It's not] just offensive; it’s patronising. The central role is played in a way that had already been recognised as embarrassingly out of touch more than a decade ago. It’s inexcusable." 

Similarly, IndieWire's David Ehrlich wrote: "Sia's directorial debut is an absolute train wreck."

"Every baffling minute of Sia’s profoundly ill-conceived directorial debut will make you ask 'why?' in a different way," he wrote.

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On Twitter, a thread dissecting the film's opening scene went viral.

"The performance is a caricature of autistic body language," The Autisticats, a page run by three autistic adults, shared.

"It’s unsettling, and insincere. And it’s deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerisms non-autistic people often employ when bullying autistic and developmentally disabled people for the ways we move."

After it received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, thousands also called for the film's nomination to be revoked.

The online petition received more than 150,000 signatures.

"Sia's debut movie Music is severely ableist and contributes to harmful stereotypes of autistic people," the petition’s creators, Rosanna Kataja and Nina Skov Jensen, wrote in the description. 

Image: Change.org.

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"Sia has claimed the movie is a 'love letter to the autism community', however, the music segments are filled with strobing lights, colours, loud sounds, and quick camera movements, which is very overstimulating," they continued.

"The fact that Music has been nominated for two Golden Globes awards illustrates the complete disregard the entire entertainment industry has for inclusivity and minority representation."

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud: The ladies discuss the controversy surrounding film Music during this episode. Post continues after audio.


Sia's response to the criticism.

In January 2021, Sia responded to the backlash regarding her decision to cast Maddie Ziegler during an appearance on The Project.

"I realised it wasn't ableism - I mean, it is ableism, I guess, as well - but it's actually nepotism, because I can't do a project without her. I don't want to. I wouldn't make art if it didn't include her."

She also shared that Ziegler was "scared" about taking on the lead role in Music.

Image: The Project. "She just said, 'I don’t want anyone to think I’m making fun of them,'" the singer-producer explained. "And I bald-facedly said, 'I won’t let that happen'."

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She continued, "I realised I couldn’t really protect her from that, which I thought I could."

In February, Sia was criticised for scenes in Music that showed Ziegler's character getting restrained — something advocates have condemned. In fact, The National Autism Association described the scenes involving the restraint of Ziegler's character as "dangerous and abusive".

In response, Sia apologised, adding the scene will be removed "from all future printings" of the film.

"I’m sorry," she tweeted.

"I plan to remove the restraint scenes from all future printings. I listened to the wrong people, and that is my responsibility, my research was clearly not thorough enough, not wide enough."

Image: Getty. She continued: "I promise I have been listening. The motion picture Music will, moving forward, have a warning at the head of the movie."

What Maddie Ziegler said about the film.

In January, Maddie Ziegler said she was "honoured" to play the lead role in Music.

"I love this movie so much," she told Germany's Cinema magazine.

"Taking on a character like this, I was sold because of the dream fantasy world. Of this imagination that Music is transformed into. That creative side, that unity, and love and community that all comes together in the end is really beautiful. And that's why I'm attached to it so much."

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Maddie Ziegler in Music. Image: Atlantic Films. Since then, however, Ziegler has largely remained silent on the film's controversy. 

"I've actually stayed out of all of it just because, you know, I’m 18 years old and it's a lot of pressure," she told The Independent. 

"I understand why people would want someone who's actually on the spectrum with autism to play this character. But in terms of the dance sequences, I think that's why Sia chose me to bring the dream world to life. It was all [made] with good intentions and with a good heart."

What Kate Hudson said about the film.

Kate Hudson, who has been nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in the film, also responded to the criticism saying that it's "an important conversation to have".

"I think when people see the film, they will see the amount of love and sensitivity that was put into it," she said during an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

"It is an important conversation to have, and it’s not just about this movie, but as a whole, about representation. For me, when I hear that there’s anybody that feels left out I feel terrible."

Kate Hudson on Jimmy Kimmel Live: Image: ABC. "Nobody has really asked me [about the backlash], they have only asked me to comment on it through a quote," she added.

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"It's not a soundbite conversation, I think it’s an ongoing, important dialogue to be had about neurotypical actors portraying neurodivergent characters. It is an important one to have with people who are experts and really know how to engage in the conversation, so I encourage it, really, truly. We are listening. It's our job to listen and encourage more conversation."

She continued: "The spectrum is so wide and should be approached with far more conversation and understanding of how can we be more representative, what are the best ways to do that." 

Sia speaks on her mental health, one year after the Music controversy.

Speaking about the fierce backlash received a year on, Sia has revealed she felt suicidal and as a result decided to enter a rehab facility. 

After initially responding to the criticism, Sia then began to isolate from the world, her manager saying she would "either be incredibly angry or else go back into herself and retreat". Sia was also absent from the Golden Globes.

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In a profile piece for the New York Times this week, Sia credited comedian Kathy Griffin for helping her out of a dark place. 

"I was suicidal and relapsed and went to rehab," Sia said. "She saved my life."

It's not the first time Sia has spoken about her mental health struggles. In a previous interview, Sia credited song writing for helping her through tough times. 

"I was having such a hard time just being alive, and the cyclical, ruminative thoughts of killing myself were very intrusive. I think a lot of the songs were pep letters to myself, 'You could do it one more day, you're going to conquer this, stay alive'."

If you or someone you know requires assistance or support contact Lifeline: 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP or health professional. In an emergency call 000.

This article was originally published on February 18, 2021, updated on February 21, 2021 and updated on January 20, 2022.

Feature Image: Atlantic Films/AAP.