If ever a musician was ill-suited to tidily packaged, “Behind the Music”-style documentary treatment, it’s M.I.A., the British-Sri Lankan hip-hop outlier who has built her career on a thrillingly mercurial blend of sonic experimentation, media provocation and impassioned, often unpopular political activism. So it’s peculiarly fitting that Steve Loveridge’s long-delayed, aptly punctuated “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” arrives on screens a bit of a mess, switching perspectives and zig-zagging haphazardly across the years as it attempts to grasp the manifold, often conflicting facets of her personality and celebrity: It’s a film as compellingly all over the shop as its subject, even if it doesn’t quite have her beat on stylistic verve and risk. Fans will thrill to this readily distributable Sundance premiere, even if it gives just as much fuel to the divisive star’s detractors.
“Why are you a problematic pop star?” Loveridge asks Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam — better known to the world as M.I.A. — from behind the camera, early on in his first feature-length doc. He says it with the teasing exasperation we reserve for friends, and true enough, Loveridge’s relationship with M.I.A. dates back to their days as fellow art students at London’s Central St. Martins in 1996. “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” isn’t quite an insider hagiography: At multiple points, viewers may sense friction between director and star, who’s an alternately chatty and tetchy subject. But the film benefits from decades of accumulated acquaintance and, in turn, material: Rather than using a contemporary interview to bind his profile, Loveridge skips through collected candid video from all points of M.I.A.’s career, giving the film a restless, elusive narrative voice.
As for the “problematic” part, Loveridge’s film is not out to soften or sweeten the public image of a performer who thrives on needling conservative western sensibilities and ideological comfort zones, whether through trivial transgressions — her absurdly over-censured middle finger to the camera while guesting on Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl show, for example — or her more challenging political commentary on the oppression of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, which has led some media outlets (not to mention U.S. immigration authorities) to label her a possible terrorist sympathizer.
The film’s unmoored structure allows M.I.A. to explain her stance in this regard from multiple stages of life and awareness: often lucidly, sometimes more sneeringly, but with a consistent conviction that counters the New York Times’ unflattering 2010 description of her activism as mere “radical chic.” Of the film’s considerable access to the star’s own video diaries and family archives, the most illuminating footage comes from her clearly life-altering 2001 sojourn to rural Sri Lanka, where she lived with her hardscrabble grandmother and extended family for several months period of time. If we get less insight into the influence of her father Arul Pragasam, the founder of the Tamil Resistance Movement, that’s in itself reflective of a presence in her life that was more symbolic than tangible.
Amid the film’s roving attempt to capture and contextualize M.I.A.’s politics, however, her fascinating artistry can get a little muted in the mix. We get stray insights into her songwriting — perhaps not everyone who danced to her 2007 signature single “Paper Planes” realized its lyrics sharply satirize western anti-immigrant prejudice — and into the formative influence of hip-hop on her border-busting sound, but less into her creative and recording processes. Her songs, meanwhile, are chiefly represented through clips from her frequently adventurous music videos: You can’t blame Loveridge for sampling the visual boldness of Romain-Gavras’s work on “Bad Girls” and “Born Free.” Comparatively little footage, however, documents M.I.A.’s singular merits as a live performer.
As much as the film’s irregular, distracted structure nods to the artist’s own wealth of eccentricities and caprices, “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” is otherwise pretty standard-issue on the aesthetic front, constructed chiefly from multiple sources of on-the-fly video. Beyond an abstract opening sequence that renders the singer a grainy digitized distortion of herself, Loveridge largely eschews the kind of stylization that might reflect her sonic innovations and eye-searing personal styling — choosing instead to keep his spiky, off-on-her-own-beam subject as real and immediate as possible. “How do you manage an artist who’s unmanageable?” asks one adviser in the course of the film; this entertainingly imperfect portrait largely finds a way.