Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche (12)
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche (12)
Director: Celeste Bell and Paul Sng
Runtime: 89 minutes
Cast: Ruth Negga (voice), Thurston Moore, Kathleen Hanna, Vivienne Westwood, Neneh Cherry, Margaret Emmons, Paul Dean, Lora Logic, Adrian Bell, Vivienne Goldman, Don Letts, Rina Vergano, Bruno Wizard, Youth
Synopsis: Poly Styrene was the first woman of colour in the UK to front a successful rock band. She introduced the world to a new sound of rebellion, using her unconventional voice to sing about identity, consumerism, postmodernism, and everything she saw unfolding in late 1970s Britain, with a rare prescience. As the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, the Anglo-Somali punk musician was also a key inspiration for the riot grrrl and Afropunk movements.
But the late punk maverick didn’t just leave behind an immense cultural footprint. She was survived by a daughter, Celeste Bell, who became the unwitting guardian of her mother’s legacy and her mother’s demons. Misogyny, racism, and mental illness plagued Poly’s life, while their lasting trauma scarred Celeste’s childhood and the pair’s relationship.
Poly Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell and Paul Sng’s documentary looks back over the life and career of an artist who fought misogyny and racism to become the first woman of colour to successfully front a UK rock band.
Featuring unseen archive material and rare diary entries narrated by Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga, this documentary follows Celeste as she examines her mother’s unopened artistic archive and traverses three continents to better understand Poly the icon and Poly the mother.
Although it confronts the prejudice she faced, this tale of Marion Elliot’s transformation into Poly Styrene is ultimately a celebration of her tenacity and talent, detailing how she introduced the world to a new sound of rebellion, using her unconventional voice to sing about identity, consumerism, post modernism and everything she saw unfolding in late 1970s Britain. As the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, the Anglo-Somali punk musician was also a key inspiration for the riot grrrl and Afropunk movements.
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche also provides a painfully personal, frank and intimate portrait of its subject with insight into her thinking. Family members, X-Ray Spex bandmates, writers and musical peers give us the context behind her rise, as a mixed-race, working class woman in a white, male, often middle-class music scene. Their audio contributions play over footage of the time, visually immersing the viewer in her world.
The film covers the racism and exclusion Poly experienced growing up in 60s Brixton with a white mum and a Black, Somalian dad; her struggles with identity (which would inform one of her most famous songs, literally called ‘Identity’); the way she was adopted by feminists (particularly after she released anthem ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!‘) and how she simultaneously rejected such labels.
Poly’s love of fashion is explored alongside her growing hatred and suspicion of consumerism. She faced constant sexism and insensitivity and was frequently patronised by male interviewers. Male figures from the time (including Don Letts and bandmate Paul Dean) express regret at their own role in her mistreatment, while Poly’s rejection of fame and struggles with mental illness are sympathetically examined.
Celeste has found a clarity and peace and has bravely confronted an often chaotic and traumatic childhood. The love she has for her mum, makes this a beautiful, insightful, compelling portrait of a singular artist and key figure of the punk scene.
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché screened last month at the online Glasgow Film Festival 2021
Streaming on Curzon Home Cinema
Images courtesy of Modern Films