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Doc Corner: 'Bad Reputation' and 'Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.'

By Glenn Dunks

Biographical documentaries about dead musicians often fall into two camps: the reverential and the tragic. Films that focus too much on the latter like Amy or Whitney  pale in comparison to something like Liz Garbus’ What Happened Miss Simone?, a film that knew that to understand your subject's tragedy you first have to understand the many facets of the artist in question.

This week, however, we get two biographical documentaries about important and influential musicians who are still (thankfully) very much with us, but which nonetheless tell their subjects’ stories in wildly different ways. Bad Reputation is clearly the more traditional of the pair, a fairly standard bio-doc that charts the life and career of Joan Jett, while Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. is more a work of artistic Jenga that roams and rummages through its subject’s life with the anarchistic spirit of her music.

What strikes me as interesting about both films is how Joan Jett and Mathangi [sic] “Maya” Arulpragasam (aka M.I.A.) directly instruct the narrative of ‘their’ films...

In Jett’s case, Bad Reputation features not just Jett herself talking the audience through her life, but often does so while looking directly down the lens of the camera. It is as if Jett – a singer known for her raw vocals that allow an intimate connection to her audience – is bypassing the camera and talking to her audience directly. It’s actually a neat trick, it’s just a shame director Kevin Kerslake didn’t utilize it more throughout the film, unfortunately replacing the method with more standard black and white, handheld interviews with Jett looking ever so off to the side at a hidden interviewer.

Jett’s influence nonetheless still lingers over the movie and its trajectory. We are immediately thrown into her story; a refreshing jolt of immediacy into the story of The Runaways. Some, however, may bristle at the lack of deeper exploration of the nastiness of manager Kim Fowley or the exploitation experienced by herself and especially Cherie Currie. There’s also little exploration of Jett’s sexuality nor the more salacious parts of her drug addictions that she ultimately came out the other side of intact (if there were any scars, emotionally or physically, we don’t learn about them). Instead the film prefers to focus part of the film’s closing stretches on her vegetarianism, which isn’t particularly interesting or insightful beyond the very fact of it and probably shouldn’t have been anything more than a passing reference.

This, of course, is sadly a familiar plight of many biographic documentaries where the film doesn’t quite know how to end without the typical climax of a death or rousing comeback. It’s obvious that Jett is very much steering the way and it’s not always in the film’s best interest, but Bad Reputation is nevertheless a punchy exploration of a rock legend that, especially if seen in a theatre, makes great use of her life’s pounding soundtrack. There's something to be said about a music documentary that actually understands an audience wanting to know about the music (I'm looking at you, two Whitney docs). But it's disappointing that Bad Reputation feels too buffed and polished.

In the case of Steven Loveridge’s Matangi / Maya / M.I.A., however, its subject’s influence isn’t just implied, but heavily enforced and emboldened by the filmmaker. It also entirely works because this documentary is trying to evoke the coolness of M.I.A. and if there’s anybody who doesn’t deserve the disservice of a bland tribute it’s M.I.bloody.A. (innit?).

Naturally, an older lady behind me at my screening at the Sydney Film Festival several months back was quick to tell her friend that “it was no Amy” and, well, it’s certainly not. Whereas that film made for an ethically queasy experience, Arulpragasam is directly inviting the viewing into her world of music, political art, activism, domesticity, and emotional torment. She wants us to experience her life so as to better understand why she does what she does, which often gets her in trouble (flipping the bird during Madonna’s Super Bowl performance) or sparks debate (her music video for “Born Free” with fake 'ketchup' blood inciting bans and news outrage while footage of real deaths in Sri Lanka goes unreported).

Her on and off stage personalities, full of punkish rage and enthusiastic anarchism (she sampled Sleigh Bells for a reason) are no doubt going to be equal parts frustrating to people who prefer their celebrities more congenial or as classical tragics. M.I.A. is a tricky figure to embrace, but one of the brilliant things about the film is how it places the onus on us to question why that is.

As the title suggests, to really understand her, you need to see all the sides. The movie would not work with just the power of the concert footage that blasts out of cinema speakers, but nor would a film just about the home movies of the young Mathangi or the crusades of adult Maya. Maybe there will be a Bad Reputation about M.I.A. at some point in the future. They could even recycle the name. But for now, Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. is a deeply involving dive into the life of a vital pop star. It realizes that to reveal the multiple sides of its subjects is essential and doing so means to better understand her, her music and her visual art.

Release: Bad Reputation plays on the 26th across the country for a special one-night-only screening before a more traditional release day and date with VOD this weekend. There are a lot of the Wednesday screenings so find out here if your city has it. Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. opens in NYC and LA this weekend before travelling around the country for a series of one-night-only screenings in October. Find out where at the website.

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Reader Comments (2)

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. has been my favorite documentary of the year. It focused much more on the woman behind the music and challenged the media portrayal of her as just another pop star with an opinion. Her music career is a backdrop for her activism surrounding the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka. Enthralling film!

September 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterChris K

I was excited for the Joan Jett doc but now I wanna see the MIA doc instead ;)

September 25, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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