Movies

Don’t expect to walk away from MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. admiring or even understanding the subject at hand

When I learned in the opening minutes of this helter-skelter
music documentary that first-time director Steve Loveridge is
also a long-time friend of his subject, rapper M.I.A., it
caused my BS detector to quiver. And while it never did more
than that, it’s clear that M.I.A., a.k.a. Maya, a.k.a. Matangi,
is working with Loveridge to present a very particular image of
herself.

For non-fans, a quick recap: M.I.A., born Matangi Arulpragasam
in 1975, grew up in London after her family moved there from
Sri Lanka when she was 9. Her dad, a leader in the Tamil
independence movement, stayed behind to train soldiers and
fight in the ongoing civil war.

The young woman went to art college with the idea of becoming a
documentary filmmaker, but a chance meeting with the frontwoman
for the band Elastica led her into making music videos and then
her own music. Among her accolades are three Grammy nominations
and an Oscar nom, the last for Best Original Song from the
movie Slumdog Millionaire.

M.I.A. wears her pro-Tamil politics on her sleeve, causing some
to label her a terrorist sympathizer. A 2010 New York
Times
magazine feature by Lynn Hirschberg said as much but
also undercut the music star, calling her naïve and
unsophisticated. The line that really rankled was when M.I.A.
was quoted as saying “I kind of want to be an outsider,” with
the writer noting she was “eating a truffle-flavoured french
fry” at the time.

Loveridge benefits from access to all of M.I.A.’s old home
movies and self-shot video, but he doesn’t always seem to know
what to do with it; the timeline bounces erratically from the
near-present to 2001 (one of her trips back to the old country)
and then to 2009 and the birth of her child. Oddly, the father,
her now-ex-husband Ben Bronfman – yes, of those Bronfmans –
isn’t mentioned.

Fans of the singer will no doubt enjoy the backstage pass
afforded by this doc. And the portrait is not wholly
one-dimensional; we sense some of M.I.A.’s uncertainties and
inconsistencies, not least the several divides between her
relatively comfortable London upbringing – say what you will,
but Brixton isn’t a war zone – versus the conditions in her
homeland, and the surrealism of becoming a performer who can
rub elbows with Kanye and Madonna.

For those who know nothing of M.I.A.’s career, politics and
controversies – like the time she flipped the bird at TV
audiences during the 2012 Superbowl halftime show –
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. will function as an introduction and an
education. Just don’t expect to walk away admiring everything
about this complicated persona.

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