Who Is M.I.A.?

Incomplete New Doc Just Adds To The Enigma

Tamil girl made good or radical-chic sellout? When Sri Lankan immigrant Maya Arulpragasam (aka M.I.A.) came on the British pop scene in the early ’00s, her beguiling electronic dance mash-up of world-music infused melodies, hip-hop hooks, and overtly political lyrics created a singular sensation. But don’t get too successful: people hate being nagged about systematic genocide on a South Asian island. Just keep flippin’ those beats!

Documentarian Steve Loveridge first met M.I.A. in the mid ’90s, when they were students at the Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design and both interested in making movies. But he started filming the charismatic classmate because her backstory and life experience were already so compelling. Maya and her family had fled civil war when she was 10 (and still called Matangi), moving to Brixton into a displaced life that mixed the black-power writings of Franz Fanon with a teenager’s love for Top-40 jams. “I look like Mowgli,” she says into a mirror, always feeling like an outsider and restless to express that displacement creatively.

MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Steve Loveridge
Running time: 95 min.

So express it she does, in what seems like rapid succession. The alt-rock group Elastica becomes her entrée into the music industry (lead singer Justine Frischmann brings her along as a behind-the-scenes filmmaker) and she even directs a video for the band. Then a sobering family visit back to Sri Lanka is prelude to her cutting a demo of songs that get her in the door at indie label XL Recordings. Suddenly her debut album Arulardrops, sells 100,000 copies, and next thing you know she’s dancing the butterfly to “Galang,” signing with Interscope, headlining Coachella and Lollapalooza, and nabbing nominations for an Oscar and a Grammy.

As an intimate look at the origins of a pop star, Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. isn’t quite the revelation of Amy, Asif Kapadia’s found-footage examination of Amy Winehouse’s rise and fall. Loveridge is behind the camera more often than not, and M.I.A. plays to his roaming gaze. Her confessions aren’t insincere, but they sure aren’t completely unguarded, either.

When Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. debuted at Sundance last January, the star and director copped to the fact that their friendship had waxed and waned over the past two decades. M.I.A. wasn’t initially into the film (culled from more than 700 hours of footage), and was expecting a movie that focused more on her work and less on the controversy.

I have to agree with her. Loveridge glosses over how exactly M.I.A. becomes such a studio-ready prodigy. Aside from some token home movies showing a young kid who loves pop songs, there’s no illuminating sense of inherent musicality or songwriting acumen. Suddenly uber-producer Diplo pops up to help out on seminal hits like “Paper Planes,” is glancingly referred to as her boyfriend, and then just as quickly disappears.

Loveridge seems more interested in the controversy: how a sycophantic Lynn Hirschberg sets up M.I.A. for a hit-job piece in the New York Times Magazine; how an envelope-pushing Madonna uncharacteristically doesn’t seem interested in giving cover to M.I.A. for flipping the bird during Madge’s star-studded halftime performance at Super Bowl XLVI; how fans turn their back on the “Bad Girls” singer after she marries millionaire Seagrams scion Benjamin Bronfman. This focus isn’t invaluable or invalid; it’s just incomplete. Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. delivers the goods in a lot of ways, but begs for a fuller picture of the vivid artist.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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