M.I.A.’s music is a purposeful mishmash of styles and sounds, smashing hip-hop beats against the traditional music of her native Sri Lanka, catchy choruses (“Paper Planes”) against unnerving direct lyrics about civil war and the plight of refugees.
So it makes sense that a documentary about her, “Matanga/Maya/M.I.A.,” would be a similarly wild and unruly creature. Director Steve Loveridge eschews the traditional rhythms of music documentaries, talking heads interviews followed by concert footage followed by more interviews, for an intimate and unguarded look inside M.I.A.’s life and career.
The film has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Marcus Point Cinemas, 7825 Big Sky Drive.
For a pop star, M.I.A. (born Mathangi Arulpragasam) has always seemed somewhat ambivalent about music as her mode of expression. She originally wanted to be a filmmaker, and her first taste of the music business was shooting footage for the band Elastica.
As a result, she filmed a lot of her life over the past two decades, which gives Loveridge (an old friend) a wealth of material to choose from. One actually wonders if M.I.A. deserves a co-director credit here since she shot so much of what we see on screen. We see her home movies growing up with her family in Britain, her father staying behind in Sri Lanka as part of the Tamil resistance movement. There is also footage of her early auditions for XL Recordings, where her swagger and confidence are on full display.
And we feel the constant tension in M.I.A.’s life between being a pop star and a political activist, sometimes awkwardly straddling the line between the two. She bristles against playing the celebrity game, resulting in tense interviews with Bill Maher or an unflattering profile in the New York Times Magazine, which wondered if her activism is really sincere or just “radical chic.”
Loveridge’s cameras take us inside the notorious 2012 Super Bowl halftime show with Madonna, where even M.I.A. doesn’t seem to fully know why she flipped off the camera on live television. We see her giddy post-performance elation evaporate as her team nervously prepares her for the media firestorm that’s about to hit her. One Fox News commentator sniffs, “Why can’t we have America in our Super Bowl?” It’s doubtful she expressed the same sentiments when The Who played the halftime show a couple of years earlier.
For fans of M.I.A.’s music, there’s probably not enough focus in the documentary on it, with just a few snippets of live performances and little exploration of how songs like “Paper Planes” were made. And detractors of her politics won’t be won over. But then, M.I.A. has never been interested in finding common ground with her enemies. “Matanga/Maya/M.I.A.” manages to be an engaging portrait of the artist in her many guises, both public and private, whose unapologetic views on immigration and refugees seem more relevant than ever.