For a good while now I’ve been searching for clear footage of M.I.A.’s performance at the 2009 Grammy Awards, intrigued by the quite mythological reverence articles that describe the dignified spectacle of it all. While a filtered recording of the ceremony on Dailymotion scratched the itch, I was in awe when I saw it unfold in crystal clear definition about halfway through the documentary “MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.” Enter Mathangi Arulpragasam, her polka dot top making no effort to hide her nine-months-pregnant belly, swaggering on to that stage. She just barely got through “I fly like paper, get high like planes” before a hard cut to grainy, visceral newsreel footage of an airport bombing in Sri Lanka.
Harsh juxtapositions like this lie at the core of “MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.,” a glitchy depiction of the rapper / singer / producer / activist M.I.A., directed by her longtime friend Steve Loveridge. Comprised mainly of heaps of archival footage pulled from over two decades of her life, the film is a comprehensive delve into the life of M.I.A., a polarizing figure in her own right, behind the music and beyond the stage.
Like many others, I’ve always been a fan of M.I.A.’s catalogue — no one has even come close to her masterful ability to fuse hip-hop, electronic and world music into a compelling product entirely specific to both herself and outsider, immigrant experience — but have never known how to reconcile with her politics. Sure, I can appreciate the impact her monumentally exceptional albums Arular and Kala had on popular music, but I simply cannot fully understand the power dynamics at play in Sri Lanka, her home country, as someone born and raised in the comfort of the United States.
In portraying such an atypical popstar like M.I.A., the documentary offers an objective look at her life: where she came from, the environment in which she was raised and the personal reasoning behind all her opinions that often warrant the moniker of “terrorist” from American media. It does this by employing her music mostly as background accompaniment. M.I.A. knows she will be remembered for more than her discography, and she wants that; “MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.” understands this and lets the artist take center stage with little to no obstruction from the documentarian.
Loveridge must have thanked his lucky stars M.I.A. wanted to be a filmmaker when she grew up, because there is a wealth of homemade videos from her childhood and teenage years which gives the doc a quite holistic quality. There’s footage of her shooting the shit with her friends during her time at Central Saint Martins Colleges, there’s footage of her producing songs with then-boyfriend Diplo, there’s footage from a tour with friend and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann. It’s safe to say either M.I.A. or someone else was filming every major life event of hers. Rarely does Loveridge opt for showing more contemporary interviews with the artist; he lets real life speak for itself.
The documentary follows a somewhat linear structure, but it often returns to a trip M.I.A. took to Sri Lanka before she was engulfed by the public eye. The M.I.A. depicted in these pre-Arular days is affectionately referred to as Maya, a young girl struggling to come to terms with her own displaced identity. In these vignettes, you see the deep-set reasoning behind her views and come to empathize with her fellow Tamils, who were brutally oppressed by the government and lived in constant fear. “MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.” never tries to push an agenda. It only wants the viewer to understand the deadly pressure cooker environment which fueled M.I.A.’s impassioned rhetoric and the ignorance that comes with labeling her as a hypocritical terrorist sympathizer.
There is a bit of slant when it comes to portraying M.I.A.’s critics, but it is often a symptom of righteous anger. The documentary leaves the viewer sharing in that anger, as it’s hard not to be mad at Lynn Hirschberg for misrepresenting her in a New York Times profile or Bill Maher for being patronizing and essentially telling her to stick to music in a nationally televised interview. There is also an insane montage surrounding her performance at a Super Bowl halftime show where she flipped off millions of viewers. M.I.A. walking through the tunnel to “The Message” with the audience aware she’s about to willingly piss off a sizeable chunk of white America proves she is more punk rock than any of us.
While one can’t help leaving the theater thinking the documentary was slightly disjointed, “MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.” is an unapologetic exploration of one of the 21st century’s most important artists, standing out in the world of carefully curated music documentaries. You may hate M.I.A.’s politics, and if so, the documentary won’t do anything to change that. But like it or not, M.I.A. has earned her place as one of the baddest girls in music and doesn’t care for anyone’s attempts to shut her down. She’s going to keep doing what she wants, and do it well.