Since Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. premiered at this year’s Sundance, its subject—Sri Lankan refugee turned global pop star M.I.A.—has repeatedly thrown shade at director Stephen Loveridge. One claim made by M.I.A. in at least three separate interviews is that Loveridge’s film doesn’t have any of her music in it. Even accounting for exaggeration, this isn’t true, as Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. opens with a clip from a lesser-known M.I.A. music video, 2010’s D.I.Y. “Space,” and not two minutes later, the instantly recognizable moog synthesizer riff and hand clap beat of her debut single “Galang” fill the soundtrack.
There’s quite a lot of M.I.A.‘s music in the film, and her insistence otherwise gets at one reason why she’s been such a magnet for criticism over the years: M.I.A. is generally uncompromising, uniquely combining dogged political intentionality and an aesthetic informed by absorbing different cultures’ sensibilities and making a self-determination that art might as well be borderless. All that, along with a natural facility with pop music that very few iconoclasts can claim, and a certain form of techno-paranoia that turned out to be prescient, make M.I.A.‘s body of work as enthralling and vital as that of any contemporary artist. That she’s struggled to explicate the various impulses that inform that work to those who’ve had difficulty wrapping their heads around her biography, and that she’s often defaulted to provocation as a coping mechanism, seem to be themes that Loveridge is grappling with as he works to narrativize and contextualize M.I.A.‘s life and career.
It’s crucial to recognize the difference between Loveridge’s approach here—which is empathic, admiring, but critical, and full of insight into the biographical foundations of M.I.A.‘s art—and the more common impulse practiced by Western journalists, who tend to normalize a stigmatism around this artist and confirm the supposed contradictions that discredit her identity. Loveridge acknowledges that when it comes to how people have perceived M.I.A. there’s been a prevalence of sexism, classicism, asinine debates about authenticity, and a general cluelessness about the subaltern, which leads birdbrained public figures like Bill Maher to mock a “cockney accent” as evidence that a Sri Lankan immigrant’s backstory doesn’t hold up.
Back in 2010 and 2011, M.I.A. gave Loveridge a large cache of self-shot video material and granted her friend the freedom to cut together a documentary with it. Her role in the process ended there, and judging by the spats between them since—and the awkwardness apparent between them now—that’s caused her some consternation. But for better or worse, these conditions have also afforded the opportunity for someone that ostensibly knows M.I.A. well to create a work undiluted by the notoriously fickle artist. And Loveridge succeeds in that he locates within M.I.A.‘s biography a handful of clear, but not oversimplified, narratives. One of these narratives looks at M.I.A.‘s family life, from a move to the U.K. as refugees in the 1980s to M.I.A.‘s return to Sri Lanka in the early 2000s, when she interviewed relatives still living under oppressive political violence and surveillance. Loveridge shows how these experiences have informed everything from the polemics of M.I.A.‘s music to a “fuck you” Tweet she directed at The New York Times in response to this bullshit.
Another of the documentary’s threads follows M.I.A.‘s gravitation toward music as the outlet most suited to her subversiveness (having already tried film and painting). One of the most revealing sections of Loveridge’s film involves M.I.A.‘s relationship with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann. The two first met backstage at one of the new wave group’s concerts; M.I.A. was then recruited to direct a music video for the band, and later followed them on tour. “I hated it,” she confesses, voicing her frustration over seeing a person in Frischmann’s position not using her influence to “say something.” It’s a frustration that manifests even more later in her career, when we see M.I.A. the pop star realize how hard it is to both say something and to make people listen to it; her celebrity affords her a platform, but the general vapidity of the media, and M.I.A.‘s obvious inexperience as a political spokesperson, get in the way and diminish the authority of her perspective.
That the music side of M.I.A.‘s story feels slightly downplayed by Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. may have less to do with the timeliness of this immigrant story (another apprehension that the artist has voiced) than with the material that Loveridge is working with, which registers M.I.A.‘s restlessness over a career that becomes forcibly homogenized by an entertainment industry prone to ignoring a world outside itself. The filmmaker’s shrewd editing leads to a feeling of absence during the more straightforward music-doc passages (of which there aren’t many), the sense of the pop star M.I.A. losing a connection to her own cultural struggle and finally using her music as a desperate outlet for that dislocation—especially the wild alarm call of information-age excess that is 2010’s tragically misunderstood Maya.
Loveridge, so evidently in M.I.A.‘s corner, occasionally elides an unflattering detail, as when his film’s recounting of the episode involving that Lynn Hirschberg hit piece in The New York Times Magazine leaves out the fact that M.I.A. tweeted the writer’s phone number, clearly crossing a line. It’s also easy to wish that a documentary about a subversive artist had a few more sequences as confrontational and impactful as the one that plays the Suicide-sampling “Born Free” over images of murdered Sri Lankan civilians—images that M.I.A. originally tweeted out in response to that New York Times tourism article. But generally it’s the cogent, thoughtful organization of this material that both makes the film revealing and allows for the impression that it’s more foundational than it is conclusive. Loveridge fully understands that even the trifurcated title of Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. may not be entirely equipped at capturing the extent of this artist’s many-faceted identity.