Film Review: Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

Filled with exhilarating music, this biopic of international star Maya Arulpragasam also takes a hard look at the price of fame.
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Pulled together from video diaries, music-videos, news clips and interviews, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is a chaotic but fascinating documentary about rapper Maya Arulpragasam, who goes by the stage name M.I.A. It's also a rewarding and unexpected look at one artist's personal growth.

A refugee from Sri Lanka who grew up in a housing project in England, Maya has had to fight all her life to make her voice heard. She and her family were forced to flee Sri Lanka after her father founded the Tamil resistance movement. Since he was largely absent from her life, Maya had to learn how to adjust to poverty and casual racism on her own.

Maya originally wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. Early footage of her family and the people in her council estate alternate with her first stabs at singing and dancing. Given her father's background, she also developed an interest in the Tamil Tigers and their women fighters.

A chance meeting with Justine Fleischman sends Maya on a tour with the rock band Elastica. After winning a filmmaking grant, she returns to Sri Lanka in 2001.

Director Steve Loveridge, a friend from art school, provides a narrative of sorts for the footage Maya shot there. He's also willing to include unflattering material, complaints from friends and family members about behavior that can seem insincere or unfeeling. The documentary is clear about Maya's mistakes and failures. They are a part of her personal growth, and watching as she finds and develops an artistic voice is thrilling. The stumbles, dead ends, rejections, the failures at school, with Elastica, with her family in Sri Lanka, they all become the building blocks of a pop persona with a phenomenal ability to communicate.

One of the strongest points the documentary makes is that women like Maya aren't supposed to have voices. She had to force her way onto a stage, into a recording contract, defying rejection at every level. By 2009, she has been nominated for both a Grammy and an Oscar in the same year. But her success is followed almost immediately by backlash. When she defends Tamil rebels as the war in Sri Lanka escalates, she is pilloried in the right-wing press. On Bill Maher's HBO talk show, he ignores what she says to make jokes about her accent.

When Maya sings with Nicki Minaj during Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, and defiantly gives the finger to cameras, she is sued for $16.6 million by the NFL. As Maya points out, what did the NFL expect from someone who last single was "Bad Girls"?

As interesting a visual artist as she is a musical one, Maya has clearly suffered for her mistakes, but also for the positions she takes. "Why don't you shut up and get a hit?" is how she sums up her reputation with record companies. Fortunately, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. includes more than enough footage of Maya writing and performing hits "Paper Planes," "Galang," "Bamboo Banga" and "Born Free" to prove her credentials as an artist.