2018, NR, 95 min. Directed by Steve Loveridge.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Wed., Nov. 21, 2018
“Why don’t you shut up and get a hit?” quips M.I.A. sardonically early on in this new documentary, which culls from almost 40 years of footage, mostly unseen until now. She is speaking rhetorically, of course, the question asked from some faceless record executive. But M.I.A. has never shut up, and with her voice, her style, and her activism, she has molded herself into an artist whose infectiously catchy songs belie the seething anger of her message.
Born Matangi Arulpragasam in the mid-Seventies, she, along with her mother and brother, fled Sri Lanka as refugees to England during the beginning of the Sri Lankan Civil War in the early Eighties, as her people, the minority Tamil, waged guerrilla warfare with the Sinhalese majority over land and citizenship. Her father was one of the founders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, where he trained soldiers, and was generally one of the major thorns, or claws, in the government’s attempt at what amounts to nothing less than ethnic cleansing. This obviously has a great impact on young Maya (the name she went by once in London, the title of the doc delineating her evolution). As a college art student, she finds a kindred spirit in fellow student and director Steve Loveridge, and eventually becomes fast friends with Justine Frischmann of the band Elastica. Maya started documenting the band on tour with a camera, but soon soured on the emotionless catchiness of Nineties Britpop and what she saw as the superficiality of that lifestyle. Enter the Roland MC-505, a groovebox sequencer where Maya transformed into M.I.A., releasing singles and ultimately getting signed to XL Recordings for her debut album.
And while Loveridge’s doc follows the usual chronology of a musician’s trajectory, or as Maya puts it, a “starving child from the mud hut who made it,” filled with home movies of her dancing to Madonna, discovering hip-hop, traveling back to Sri Lanka in her 20s to document her family, the film begins to cohere in ways that are surprising. Of course she would embrace post-colonial theory, of course she would meld hip-hop and dancehall with the traditional sounds of her culture, while telling stories of the disenfranchised. It all seems overly determined, but the beauty of Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is that the film depicts these disparate elements of Maya's life as an evolution to her art. Because at the center of it all is Maya, a force of nature, an activist, a rebellious performer who’s unafraid to flip the bird at the camera during her infamous Super Bowl performance with her idol, Madonna (for which the NFL tried to fine her almost $17 million). For someone who was constantly told to “learn the script,” to be a pretty face with catchy hits, she defied that at every turn, even if it meant being the subject of a brutal takedown by the NYT’s Lynn Hirschberg or having to deal with the horrible patronizing of Bill Maher. She’s too smart for all of that. “If you come from the struggle, how the fuck do you talk about about the struggle without talking about the struggle?” she asks at one point. A vibrant, outspoken, and incredibly talented artist, this doc is both a biography of a life and a document of a person living on her own terms, just trying to figure things out like the rest of us.