Review: MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. is an eye-opening portrait of a unique artist

Steve Loveridge's documentary biopic about the polarizing pop star is much more than a coming-of-age tale

MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. (Steve Loveridge). 97 minutes. Opens October 5. See listing. Rating: NNNN

For those only vaguely familiar with M.I.A., that girl who just wants to *gunshot* *gunshot* *gunshot* and *click* *click* *ka-ching* take your money, the new documentary MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. is eye-opening context to a one-of-a-kind artist.

Her refugee story, globe-trotting influences, DIY art, rise to fame and repeated clashes with media and then the NFL makes for a not-entirely-flattering artist profile like no other. That so little of M.I.A.’s music is featured in the doc speaks to how much there is to tell about her story. Director Steve Loveridge, Maya’s  friend, does a fine job arranging a narrative through line in a life and career that fires in all directions.

By the time we get to that middle finger during the Superbowl halftime show, well, we kinda get it. You don’t dress M.I.A. up as a cheerleader and expect her to just raise pom-poms.

For fans, this is not new information. But there are new textures thanks to home video footage shot by Maya (born Matangi Arulpragasam) and others that provides intimate snippets from her childhood, teenage years and pre-stardom moments in both the UK and Sri Lanka.

Immigrant children might see themselves in those bits where as a child Maya’s dressed up in a puffy, tacky party dress that mom likely acquired from whatever London’s equivalent to Bargain Harold’s is, or when Maya and her sister are teaching their mother how to do the butterfly. They’re borrowing from the Black culture that surrounds them, because their own is yet to be cool, while speaking in British English that’s slightly modulated with an immigrant accent for their mother’s benefit.

The awkwardness of growing up can be doubly so when you’re an immigrant, but when those moments are thrown up on the big screen, they transcend into a point of pride.

The footage in Sri Lanka brings audiences closer to the war that’s affected Maya along with the rest in the Tamil diaspora, even though our escape means that, to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, we’re (accurately) on the outside. This material informs Maya’s music, activism and the frictions that come with her stardom.

Yes, this is a doc about a girl finding her voice, or at least that’s how it begins. But then that voice starts screaming about the genocide in Sri Lanka, which plays a pivotal role in M.I.A.’s career, and it becomes clear that this is also a doc about who’s willing to listen. 

See NOW’s cover story with M.I.A. here | @JustSayRad

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