film: “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” (2018)

This is a documentary about popular musical artist M.I.A., with the title being her real name, an abbreviation of her real name used by her family, and her stage name. She is something of a documentarist’s dream as before her musical career took off she was interested in pursuing a career in documentary filmmaking and was filming herself obsessively before this was something every young person was doing. She also appears to have grown up in a family that liked recording itself. So there is plenty of “before she was famous” footage and indeed lots of home video footage from after she became famous, such is her interest in self-documentation. The film uses all this footage to good effect, combining it with more standard musical artist footage to present a fairly conventional version of M.I.A.’s musical career and life, from fleeing Sri Lanka as a refugee (partly thanks to anti-Tamil riots, partly thanks to parents’ involvement in the shady Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), growing up in a London council estate, going to art school, becoming a musical sensation and then becoming mired in controversy.

The controversies are both interesting and at times surprisingly funny. M.I.A.’s sense of herself as a Tamil and a refugee seems very important to her and her work often references both a sense of Tamil oppression (and fighting back against that oppression), a more general struggle against oppression, and then the refugee experience. Her lyrical concerns touch on global issues, particularly with reference to the global South, rather than purely with the marginalised First World experience more commonly seen in hip-hop. Her breakthrough in the USA with her second album, Kala, unfortunately coincided with the brutal end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, when the Sri Lankan army crushed the Tamil Tigers but used such levels of indiscriminate violence that non-combatants were killed in enormous numbers. In interviews, videos and social media posts M.I.A. attempted to push back against this and bring the horrific levels of human rights abuses taking place to a wider audience. For this she became something of a hate figure to members of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese community, both there and in the Sri Lankan diaspora, as they saw her as an apologist for the terrorist Tamil Tigers spreading calumnies about their country. I found that instructive with regard to the elusive nature of truth in civil conflict situations.

What seemed a bit more unsavoury was an interview and long profile piece the New York Times did with M.I.A., where she was dismissed as a faux radical playing with Third World revolutionary slogans from a position of First World privilege (the New York Times made much of the father of her child and then fiancé being the super-rich heir to some big fortune). That seemed unfair, as M.I.A. had been sticking her neck out attempting to raise awareness of the massacres taking place in Sri Lanka, which are actual terrible events and not some kind of yeah-man facile cause célèbre du jour. Yet I can almost see where the New York Times was coming from – although M.I.A. was the child of refugees, grew up in a South London council estate, and had people spitting in her face and killing her a Paki, her self assurance and media savvy make it easy to see her as being in some way inauthentic and mysteriously privileged. That may say more about the New York Times‘ prejudices, however, as it amounts to thinking that the offspring of real refugees can’t go to art school and are only authentic if they remain picturesquely poor and inarticulate.

Those controversies are downers, but more roffletastic was the one that ensued when she performed with Madonna in the interval of the Superbowl in 2012. At some point she gave the finger to the camera, which then turned into a monumentally big deal because America is full of uptight crazy people. The film presents a montage of television commentators talking about how outraged they are by this terrible occurrence, lending support to the idea that right wing Americans are all butt-hurt man-baby snowflakes (and also dipshits, particularly the guy who started moaning about how Madonna should have picked American musicians to perform with). At one point the NFL was demanding some $15,000,000 from M.I.A. in a lawsuit arising from the incident, later offering to settle for 100% of any further income earned by her should her lifetime earnings ever go over $2,000,000 (her then manager, Mr Jay Z, apparently advised her to accept this). The suit was subsequently settled on terms that have not been revealed but the whole episode was an astonishing exercise in people taking things way too seriously (something that I fear may be America’s national past-time).
My liking for the film is not however without reservation. While I salute M.I.A.’s attempts to raise awareness of human rights abuses perpetrated against Tamils in Sri Lanka, I found her uncritical support for the Tamil Tigers deeply troubling. The Tigers were an unsavoury bunch whose supposed struggle for Tamil rights led them to their own acts of indiscriminate violence against Sinhalese civilians and were led by a sinister figure who constructed a personality cult around himself. I think the film could have interrogated her beliefs in this regard. It should be possible to oppose the widespread large-scale massacres of Tamils that took place in Sri Lanka without falling into the trap of supporting terrorist violence against Sinhalese civilians: I do not think either justifies the other.

That is little more than a quibble, and I would still say to see this film, particularly if you can see it in a cinema. The music in it is great (obv.), not just the M.I.A. music but also some storming footage of Elastica that appears early on (in the Britpop era M.I.A. somehow fell in with Justine Frischmann and was at one stage shooting footage of Elastica for a possible documentary about them; in the film M.I.A. talks about how this was a miserable time for her as Frischmann’s bandmates all hated her). The other great thing about the film is that M.I.A. looks amazing, by which I do not just mean that she is rowr (of course she is, she’s M.I.A.) but that that she oozes charisma and is always wearing cool clothes. Her moves are great too and if you want big M.I.A. moves you need to see this on the big screen.

More M.I.A. action.


image sources:

M.I.A. (Irish Times review of film)

M.I.A.’s middle finger (The Globe and Mail)

Still from Born Free video (jenesaispop: El mensaje de M.I.A. en ‘Born Free’)

FILM: “Gimme Danger” (2016)

And now a review of a film from some time ago. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, this one deals with popular band The Stooges. It tells the story of their relatively short career through a combination of interviews and archival footage. Iggy Pop, their lead singer, proves to be a particularly engaging interviewee. The film takes an interesting approach, focussing more on the music than on the more colourful aspects of the band’s behaviour (i.e. Mr Pop’s tendency to pop out his lad on stage is barely mentioned, Ron Asheton’s habit of wearing an SS uniform on stage is covered almost in passing and the band members’ prodigious drøg habits receive scant attention). Some have criticised this, accusing the film of missing the point by adopting a reverential approach to the band. Perhaps so but the more garish aspects of The Stooges are so well known that focussing on them would have meant the film dwelled overly on material with which there is broad familiarity.

I suspect many readers know a lot more about the Stooges than I do, but I was surprised to learn that Mr Pop had a pre-Stooges musical career as a drummer, playing with various local blue bands and filling in onstage in other outfits. He says that one reason why he gave up drumming was that he got fed up of looking at singer’s arses (though once said arse was that of Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, which he admits was not so bad). I was also struck by how his family background appeared to be relatively functional, while modest, and not the boo-hoo poor me broken home background of many other larger than life rock stars. Generally though his thoughtfulness and erudition was very striking, a world away from the cartoonish image he may have built for himself and acted out in his wilder years. He was also strikingly generous with regard to the contribution to the Stooges’ success of the other band members and also other bands, notably the MC5, though he was dismissive of much of the music of the late 1960s, which he saw as bullshit attempts by The Man to co-opt youth culture and head off revolt (political and aesthetic), with Crosby, Stills and Nash particular offenders here.

Some odd features of the film were its decision to merely hint at some big issues in the Stooges history, such as the reshuffle on the third album that saw Ron Asheton moved to bass and James Williamson recruited to play guitar. Iggy Pop just describes this baldly as having happened with no explanation, though I understand from my colleague Mr W— that there were Issues behind this change. The film also hints without stating directly that said third album, Raw Power, is the duff one. I cannot judge this myself, not having heard it, but I think its being credited to Iggy and the Stooges rather than The Stooges is a warning sign, as its tendency to appear in new remastered and remixed editions every couple of years. [People have since claimed to me that actually Raw Power is the best Stooges album, but they would say that.]

I was also interested by the detail that it was the film Velvet Goldmine that provided the impetus for the reformation of the Stooges back whenever they reformed. Mike Watt put together a band to play Stooges songs in the film, which featured Ewan McGregor as an analogue of Iggy Pop, and this somehow morphed into a touring band for Iggy Pop with Mike Watt then encouraging the reformation of what was left of the original Stooges. Fascinating. That James Williamson (now a retired Silicon Valley executive) was recruited once more to replace Ron Asheton when the latter died was both an amusing and poignantly ironic twist of fate.

The other thing I learned about the Stooge more from people talking about the film than the film itself is that ladies love Iggy Pop. I mean, I had always had the idea that he had more muffs than I’ve had hot dinners (and I’ve had a lot of hot dinners) but I reckoned that was in the general sense that music performers often find that their musical prowess opens romantic doors. But no, it seems that women really like Iggy Pop, with it apparently being quite common for ladies to dress up when going to see this film in the cinema, on the basis that you need to look your best for Iggy. God bless him.

image source (Guardian: Gimme Danger review – Jim Jarmusch plugs into Iggy Pop’s raw power)

“Lost in France” (2016)

Some time ago, unknown to each other, two men with respectable white collar jobs went to a concert by Luke Haines. Both of them enjoyed the concert but one of them decided to jack in his job and become a documentary filmmaker who would start his career with a film about Luke Haines. That man was not me; rather it was Niall McCann and his Luke Haines film was called Art Will Save The World. More recently he made a another music-themed film, called Lost in France, which is about the Glasgow record label Chemikal Underground and acts that have appeared on it (Mogwai, Arab Strap, The Delgados, etc.). The film kind of takes its title from the time a load of Chemikal Underground acts played a small music festival in Mauron, France back in the 1990s and then brings some of these artists back to play gigs in the same place again. Several of the artists and label organisers (overlapping categories) say in the film that the French music festival was not a particularly seminal experience in the label’s life but the device still works as frame on which to hang things.

For all my interest in the music of Glasgow, my focus has been more on Belle & Sebastian, their friends and relations and older acts like Teenage Fanclub, the Vaselines, and the Jesus and Mary Chain etc., who might be seen by some as more “indie” than the Chemikal Underground acts. I do not know The Delgados at all, I know Arab Strap almost as a caricature (the joke among some of our friends was that they were basically a band fronted by the Ewan Bremner character from Mike Leigh’s Naked) but I have at least seen Mogwai a few times at All Tomorrow’s Parties even if I have never fully surrendered to them. The film therefore was an interesting window into a mysterious and half-glimpsed world.

The film also works as a meditation on the nature of the music industry generally. There are the usual discussions of why some artists become successful and others less so. The film features Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, who apparently had some links to Chemikal Underground in days of yore, and he himself notes how the fates made his band successful while others failed to attract a wide popular audience (though he does say “I mean, I’m not saying ‘why were we successful?’, because I know why we were successful: we wrote a lot of catchy songs that people liked”; it would be a strange universe if the popularities of Arab Strap and Franz Ferdinand were reversed). The more general point is made that Chemikal Underground started at a time when people still bought records rather than streaming or downloading music for free. Stewart Henderson of The Delgados and Chemikal Underground itself notes that in days of yore the income from record sales meant that the label was able to support small-scale bands playing gigs in relatively out of the way places in the USA (in expectation of further record sales); that will not be happening any more. So the film ends up being a bit elegiac for a now vanished era, with an accompanying sense that perhaps music is something that is coming to an end.

That said it is not a mopey film. The musicians have a lot of roffles on their second trip to France and with their reminiscences about the first. One my favourite possibly unintentionally hilarious moments was when they arrive once more in Mauron and are greeted by some French bloke who was involved in organising the original festival. He shakes the men’s hands and then gives a monster hug to Emma Pollock (solo artist and member of The Delgados) that perhaps over-lingers, while her husband/partner (another Delgado) stands around awkwardly.

Less appealingly this did come across as a pretty blokey scene and it would have been a total sausagefest if it had not been for Emma Pollock. She also seemed to be slightly flying the flag for the more “indie” Glasgow, with her nice coat being in striking contrast to the more non-descript outfits of the blokes.


Anyway, as mentioned above, this whole scene is one I am relatively unfamiliar with and after seeing the film I was struck by the idea of purchasing a representative record by each of the key acts referenced in it. So to what extent can readers recommend to me albums by the following artists: Mogwai, The Delgados, RM Hubbert, Emma Pollock and Arab Strap?

Readers may also be interested to hear that Niall McCann has now made another music-themed film, The Science of Ghosts, which deals with the musician Adrian Crowley and which will be shown at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival on 26 February 2018.

image source (The Quietus: Interview with Lost In France Director Niall McCann)