Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A., has been a heavily scrutinized figure almost since the release of her debut album, and the contradictions between her Tamil background, London coming-of-age and subsequent explosion into pop star status have been covered to death by music journalists. In 2011, the artist herself gave access and a slew of personal recordings to an old college friend named Steve Loveridge in an attempt to have her story told by a confidant. Many years later, Loveridge has compiled Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., the title a testament to its ambition to unite the various sides of Arulpragasam. The film announces its ambitions and self-deprecating intimacy in equal measure in a beginning clip where Loveridge asks “Why are you a problematic pop star?” and M.I.A. responds as if grilling herself further “Why don’t you just shut up and get a hit?” Despite its brief running time and the open criticism of its own subject, the film manages the impressive feat of detailing the artist’s irreconcilable differences into an honest, if occasionally narrow, portrait.

If M.I.A. has spent much of her professional career battling a media culture that uses overwhelming coverage in an endless cross-examination in the court of public opinion, the film suggests that the artist was inculcated in that level of documentation from childhood. In the pre-vlog era, Arulpragasam taped herself giving confessionals about her moods and thoughts for no one’s benefit but her own, and she speaks of wanting to be a filmmaker at a young age. The young artist’s precociousness barely masks a desire for fame, but we also see her trying to come to terms with her family’s unique political situation. In one scene, her siblings talk to her camera about feeling resentment toward their father for remaining in Sri Lanka to fight in the Civil War, mentioning that he never communicates with them even by letter. The young Maya, however, then turns the camera on herself and speaks about her sense of pride in her father’s fighting. She curiously notes that she is grateful to him for giving her a “background,” a remark that could be read as her already seeing her life as fodder for her self-image.

Despite being M.I.A.’s pal, Loveridge proves surprisingly willing to let the artist contradict and undermine herself even in her adolescent quest for self-definition. A recording of Arulpragasam following Elastica on tour after befriending Justine Frischmann finds her ranting like a pretentious student about the superficiality of Elastica’s music. And when Arulpragasam decides to visit family in Sri Lanka to balance out her time among the whiter, mainstream crowds of Britpop, she also cannot help but make the trip about her and her own arty tendencies when she decides to take a camera to make a film about Civil War survivors. In a telling moment of priority, Arulpragasam is seen the morning of her flight screwing around so much that she nearly leaves the camera when leaving for the airport, and in Sri Lanka she barely lands before shoving said camera into her family’s face as they avoid her insistence on talking about the war for fear of reprisals, a reasonable fear she halfway acknowledges but with selfish petulance over the impact on her prospective movie.

Despite including such bratty, self-absorbed moments, Loveridge is clearly not out to shred his friend’s image, and the film’s most explicit stances are sympathetic to M.I.A.’s consistently infuriating reception among media. Early interviews with M.I.A. circa Arular show MTV VJs responding to her globalist politics with vapid platitudes, while later clips show cynicism infecting that superficiality. This is most evident in a heinous interview with Bill Maher in which M.I.A., attempting to call attention to escalations of violence in Sri Lanka, is instead derailed by Maher teasing her for having a British accent. Of course, the notorious Lynn Hirschberg New York Times profile is covered, introduced with an ominous strain of music tacked to an email promising M.I.A. a cover story if she agrees to the interview and the subsequent fallout of Hirschberg’s bizarrely vindictive hatchet job. Loveridge stitches together Arulpragasam’s reactions to the piece, which give an insight into just how quickly she realized that Hirschberg’s portrait of her as a vain fraud would harm her career.

Loveridge’s insoluble portrait of M.I.A. curiously eschews most of her music, a baffling decision at first glance that ultimately speaks to an attempt to keep focus solely on the already unpredictable, protean figure at the film’s core. Besides, it’s refreshing to see a music documentary refuse to fall back on the hits to pad out a staid narrative, and the director uses his sparing glimpses of M.I.A.’s art to pull focus on how much of her odd, mutable personality goes into everything. Take “Paper Planes,” for example, as M.I.A. and Diplo work on the track while mugging for their webcam. One of the defining songs of the 21st century is heard in piecemeal as its makers joke around like they were plonking out nonsense for fun. This is one of the most revealing, demystifying moments in a documentary filled with them, and it says more about the subject’s creativity than any blunt interview and montage of arduous recording and mixing.

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