“Popular, popular, I’m really really pop-u-lar” goes the sardonic, off-the-cuff riff spontaneously spouted by controversial Sri Lankan-British hip-hop artist M.I.A. aka Maya, at an early point in Steve Loveridge‘s energetic, scattered but surprisingly deep-cut documentary about her life. It’s a bit of home video footage taken from around the time of M.I.A.’s first brush with success, after getting signed to XL Recordings in London and releasing her first single “Galang,” and it’s the combination of these pre-fame, pre-infamy moments, with the more knowing and pointed footage from later that gives the film its edge, and a shifting, ironic perspective that is admiring while never letting the subject get too big for her boots (often high-tops, sometimes Docs).
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The irony in that little ditty, of course, is that even at the height of her influence, M.I.A. was never anything as straightforward as “popular.” Her biggest hit, “Paper Planes” features a worrisomely catchy mash-up of gunshot sound effects with cash registers jangling; her most notorious video, “Born Free” directed by Romain Gavras, is a lavishly imagined dystopian short film in which a genocide is graphically committed against ginger-haired people; and she seared herself into the American popular consciousness by committing the unimaginably heinous crime of raising a middle finger at the camera during the halftime show at the Superbowl, at which she was performing alongside Madonna and Nicki Minaj. If occasionally her incomprehension about the firestorms she managed to create throughout her career can ring a little disingenuous, her bemusement at the wild overreaction to that quick bird-flip feels very real. It was, after all, one of the limpest moments of protest for an artist whose overtly political work often referenced the Tamil resistance movement of which her father was a founder. “Other immigrant kids had Dads who were lawyers or doctors. Mine was ‘a terrorist’” she says at one point, though later she rounds on her siblings who speak scornfully of him: “He made us interesting! He gave us a background!”
It’s her exploration of this background, her immigrant status and how she parlayed those ostensible obstacles into a pop career that is covered by Loveridge, a friend of Maya’s from her London art-school days (she was studying to be a documentarian, hence the wealth of first-person footage from the mid-90s). And though at first, it seems to be a straightforward enough work of chronological assemblage, there’s a clever flourish in the way the information about Maya’s pivotal 2001 visit to Sri Lanka to stay with relatives and revisit her childhood haunts, is parceled out. The first sequence ends after Maya, or Matangi as she is known here, is so enjoying the trip (about which she was first ambivalent) that she decides to extend her stay; the second time we go back to 2001, it’s to reveal that while she was still there, the airport in Colombo was bombed by Tamil separatists in an infamous attack that left dozens dead and wounded. And the third time we return, it is at the very end of the film when Maya’s relatives, have reluctantly started to open up a little about the struggles and hardships they have faced, on account of her father, but also simply by being caught between a violent insurgency and an oppressive regime for so long now.
Having been politicized — some more nervous detractors would insist “radicalized” into a “pro-terrorist” stance — on that trip, Maya returned to London and began to write music, with the help of friend and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann. And her punkily pugnacious attitude and genre-defying, beat-blending musical style (which has incidentally aged a lot better than that of some of her contemporaries) got her noticed and signed. But where in other cases the rest might have been history, Maya continued to make the journey more difficult, but again more interesting, than the average rising star would have wanted. Even as she’s preparing to play at the Grammys and hanging with Spike Jonze and developing protegés of her own, Maya is angered by a media that neuters her appearances of their political content, and then fakes outrage when she fails to live down to the anodyne version of her that they have been trying to create against her will. That prickly relationship with the media reaches a nadir when Lynn Hirschberg‘s hit piece profile appears in the New York Times Magazine in 2010 and witheringly indicts Maya as a champagne activist, describing her talking of her outsider status while eating truffle fries that, it later turns out, Hirschberg herself had ordered. (There is a nice bitchy sting to the footage of a pre-interview, all-smiles Hirschberg hypocritically praising the brilliance of the “Born Free” video.)
Which is not to say Loveridge casts Maya as some sort of martyr: As often as, over the decades, she is a brilliant, radically abrasive and unapologetic spokesperson for immigrant issues, and a blazing example of a talent forged in the fires of marginalization, she can also be childish and petulant, and her political and social thinking is not always as fully developed as the voice she uses to preach it. But then, as she herself sighs at one point “It’s amazing that in one lifetime you have to figure out so many things.” And as frustrating and even hostile a subject as she can be (the star was originally not a fan of Loveridge’s film but has reportedly come round to it since) if there is one note that rings clear through all the xeroxed, glitchy, abrasive background noise, it is that of authenticity and sincerity. She may not always have been right, but despite her tripartite persona, “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” convinces us, she has always told her singular truth. [B+]