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Matangai/Maya/M.I.A is a choppy look at a complicated artist

Matangai/Maya/M.I.A is a choppy look at a complicated artist

Even if viewers of Matangai/Maya/M.I.A are unfamiliar with the Sri Lankan-born rapper, her music is infectious. But this documentary about M.I.A., is, like its subject, provocative and problematic. She is absolutely fascinating; the film, however, is only intermittently interesting.

Director Steve Loveridge introduces M.I.A. as a teenage refugee, living in London and discovering music as a means of expression. She becomes particularly interested in hip hop. However, M.I.A. has a complicated backstory. Her father was a founder of the Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka. His long absence from her life may be what gives her strength and independence. M.I.A. is also rebellious and a bit cheeky—just watch her sing “I’m Popular” mocking superficial lifestyles. 

Yet, Matangai/Maya/M.I.A asks viewers to sit through considerable home movie footage of her trip back to Sri Lanka before the film gets to the more controversial aspects of the rapper’s career. This approach can be slow-going for viewers. Yes, it’s important to contrast who M.I.A. might have been had she not moved to the UK as a teen. And, yes, her values growing up without privilege are interesting in light of the successful pop star she’s become. But Loveridge spends too much time on M.I.A’s backstory and glosses over elements of her life that are equally significant. For example, her relationships with Philly-based DJ Diplo and Benjamin Bronfman are given only passing mention. Matangai/Maya/M.I.A is not a traditional biographical documentary, but it feels like shortcuts were made to shoehorn highlights and lowlights of her life into 95 minutes.

M.I.A. does get to record for Interscope records and play big concerts, like Cochella. But when her career really kicks into high gear, she does battle with the press. Her talk about genocide in Sri Lanka rather than her career falls on deaf ears. She is described as a terrorist in some outlets. M.I.A. is dismissed in an interview with Bill Maher and sabotaged during a New York Times Magazine profile by Lynn Hirschberg. She is even edited out of the Grammys. These failed interactions—which are more freighted for an immigrant/refugee female rapper—may be what prompts M.I.A.’s bad behavior. She shoots the notorious video, “Born Free,” which features the up-close execution of a redhead (to make a point), or her “shocking” act as a dancer in Madonna’s 2012 halftime show at the Super Bowl, where she gives the cameraman her middle finger. These moments of acting out are, as M.I.A. explains in the film, meant to provoke reactions and challenge the status quo. But Loveridge’s film reports them without showing if or how the $16.6M suit levied at M.I.A by the NFL was ever resolved. (They settled.) M.I.A.’s vitriol is on display, but the film forces viewers to connect the dots, and do outside reading to get more information, which can be a drawback. 

One of the most revealing sequences in the film has clips from M.I.A’s “Bad Girls” video, which shows how she leans into the joke, mocking the very thing she’s presenting. At least, Matangai/Maya/M.I.A can be appreciated on this level. Loveridge’s doc showcases it subject as she is, like it or not. It is just disappointing that this choppy film could have been much better. It almost does its subject a disservice.

Matangai/Maya/M.I.A opens in Philly theaters today.

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