It’s Mathangi 'Maya' Arulpragasam's Sri Lankan and Tamil heritage that’s at the centre of the film, rather than her music and career
Music documentaries about working artists aren’t only predictable in their feel-good propaganda but in their cast-iron structure also. They are centred around a triumphant live show unless they’re being really real, in which case they’ll include some on-the-road footage where the artist is filmed crying (although not too much), before we’re asked to sit through another 90 seconds of a song played live in a football stadium. It’s boring but it makes sense: the brand is still alive and needs selling, in this case under the guise of ‘showing the fans the real me’. Of course, the most interesting parts of these films are far away from the music, even when they’re constructed and signed off by 5 business managers, and providing you agree with that, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is the music doc for you.
Although the propaganda machine has no off switch, it’s fair to say that it’s on a low setting here, not least because M.I.A. didn’t make this movie herself – Steve Loveridge did. He’s an old friend from Maya’s days at Central St Martin’s College but it’s complicated and she’s not completely happy with the end result. As a perpetual victim, that’s hardly surprising, although on that point, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A serves to defend what some consider M.I.A.’s unfounded paranoia (a case in point: her misrepresentation in the New York Times Magazine by writer Lynn Hirschberg; another: footage of Bill Maher dismissing her on his CBS show as she attempts to discuss the Sri Lankan Civil war and the genocide of the Tamil people – “Why do you sound like Mick Jagger,” he interrupts).
It’s Sri Lanka and M.I.A.’s Tamil heritage that’s at the centre of the film rather than her music and career – that and her experiences as a British immigrant, and in turn her position as a famous brown woman in a white, male world and industry.
At Loveridge’s disposal is years of camcorder footage shot by Maya as a fledgling documentarian herself. Later, we see the dressing room aftermath of her Super Bowl performance but more interesting than that is the material she shot aged 25 in Sri Lanka. “I need to keep the immigrant story in my music,” she says at one point. The film about her holds true to that only thanks to her own life’s footage, and also allows us to understand M.I.A. more than ever before.