'Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.': Film Review | Sundance 2018

'Bona fide hustler' makes her name.

M.I.A., the British-born rapper-pop star of Tamil extraction, gets the full biodoc treatment in this collage-film by Steve Loveridge.

An appropriately collage-like work that channels its subject's eclectic, mash-up style, documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. offers a well-rounded portrait of rapper/artist/activist M.I.A. Born Mathangi Arulpragasam, aka Maya, she is perhaps best known for her song "Paper Planes," an infectious ditty with a killer sample from The Clash's "Straight to Hell" that featured in the film Slumdog Millionaire, earning her an Academy Award nomination as well as a Grammy nom in the same year. She also made headlines in 2012 for flipping the bird at the camera while performing for the Super Bowl's halftime show, invoking the legal wrath of the NFL.

This fractured biographical tribute draws on material spanning many years, including footage shot by Arulpragasam herself. Clearly, it's assembled with deep affection by producer-director Steve Loveridge, who has known Arulpragasam since they both attended London's Central Saint Martins School of Art together in the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, perhaps unintentionally, the film also displays a mercurial character who is both innately talented and yet fundamentally a magpie, passionately sincere but sometimes shallow and naive, utterly charismatic and a bit of brat. Diehard fans won't care, of course, just how many multitudes their heroine contains, but there's a 50/50 chance that viewers only passingly familiar with her work will find they like M.I.A. just a little less by the end of doc.

Given her bi-continental upbringing and exposure to war at an early age, it's no surprise Arulpragasam is such a complicated character. Her father Arul Pragasam, aka Arular, was a well-known activist and leader for the Tamil independence movement in Sri Lanka. He spent many years working among Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, separated from his wife Kala, Maya and her siblings, who all grew up largely in Hounslow, South London.

Growing up in a neighborhood mostly composed of immigrants from South Asia, but also home to a substantial West Indian and African community, exposed Arulpragasam to many different sounds and styles. Like many other artists from the U.K.'s inner-city areas, her work eventually came to blend these influences into a unique hodgepodge, in music mixing South Asian instruments with rap beats and indie-music production values. Footage here captures how Arulpragasam, at first a filmmaking major, got into the music scene through a friendship with Justine Frischmann of the 1990s Britpop band Elastica, and eventually started mixing together tracks herself featuring her own rapping. Decking herself out in brightly colored, trend-forward clothing she often made herself, and developing a dance style both seductive and feisty, she proved to be a magnetic performer. Collaborating with musicians, video directors and especially upcoming producers like Diplo, who for a time was her lover, helped to shape the whole music-style-personality product that is M.I.A., a very mid-2000s cross-cultural phenomenon in one svelte package.

Almost equal time is paid to footage exploring Arulpragasam's roots in Sri Lanka, especially the time when she went to live with her grandmother and extended family there in 2001, planning to make a film. Seeing her interact in such a relaxed fashion with little kids and old women softens the tough, pop-princess persona. However, the frequent zigzagging back and forth between the 2010s, the present, the early 2000s and Arulpragasam's childhood becomes quite dizzying over the long haul, and the film almost starts to feel like a work that's gotten lost in the editing suite as the director and subject struggle to say everything about globalism, fame, identity and whatever else comes into their heads, until the film is at risk of saying nothing much at all.

Production company: Cinereach
Director: Steve Loveridge
Producers: Steve Loveridge, Lori Cheatle, Andrew Goldman, Paul Mezey
Executive producers: Philipp Engelhorn, Michael Raisler,
Camera: Graham Boonzaaier, Catherine Goldschmidt, Matt Wainwright
Editors: Marina Katz, Gabriel Rhodes
Music: Dhani Harrison, Paul Hicks
Music supervisor: Tracy McKnight
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Sales: Dogwoof

95 minutes