Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)
Directors: Celeste Bell, Paul Sng
Screenwriters: Celeste Bell, Paul Sng
Starring: Celeste Bell, Marianne Elliott-Said, Ruth Negga
When we think of punk, we think of the male figureheads whose brash and aggressive anti-establishment ideology found resonance with the disenfranchised youth of the 1970s. Regarded as some of the most groundbreaking figures in modern music, men like Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Mick Jones, Dave Vanian, Billy Idol, Hugh Cornwall and Malcolm Maclaren stood at the forefront of the punk rock scene, and the spectacle of their image, their questionable behaviour, edge and booming cries for anarchy defined and dominated the nihilistic subculture’s legacy. However, the movement’s progressive force of female voices – though often drowned out by their male counterparts – dominated the undercurrent of punk, birthing radical music and ideas that the modern world still isn’t ready to hear.
A new documentary explores the legacy of one such female punk pioneer: Marianne Elliott-Said, aka Poly Styrene, lead-singer of X-Ray Spex and one of the movement’s biggest unsung heroes. Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, co-directed by and featuring Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell, looks back at not only the legacy of Marianne’s punk-rock alter-ego but at the complete lineage of her life, creating a portrait of a rebel, a poet, a fashionista, a spiritualist, a vulnerable human being, a woman affected by racism and mental health issues, one of the primary voices behind punk’s hidden feminist agenda, and, most importantly, a mother.
We meet Celeste Bell poking around boxes and boxes of her Mother’s memories: newspaper clippings, posters, photographs. Clutching the material evidence of her Mother’s monumental career in her hands, she begins at the end, talking poetically about her Mother’s death and the pressing expectation to continue a legacy consumed by such a significant loss. Anybody familiar with Poly’s image will immediately recognise her likeness in Celeste: although Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché works to celebrate and remember an icon, everything we need is already there from the outset – the memory of Poly Styrene plain to see in the face, eyes, lips, and style of her only daughter.
We travel backwards in time and across continents with Celeste as she looks for connections between the Mother she knew and the punk-rock alter-ego she presented to the world. Poly Styrene documents Poly’s entire life, combing through snapshots, poems, rare archival footage and diary entries – voiced by the Oscar-nominated Ruth Negga – to reveal the mind and inspirations lingering behind the legend. Firstly, Celeste paints a picture of her mother’s childhood, chronicling her Anglo-Samali heritage, formative experiences and her encounters with racism, both casual and aggressive, which went on to fuel her lyrics – though Poly was a Londoner born and bred, society questioned her Britishness throughout her entire life. We can best see Poly’s rebellion against this form of societal obsession with race and labels in songs such as “Identity”: “Do you see yourself on the T.V. screen, Do you see yourself in the magazine”. The documentary delves into the history behind all of Poly’s iconic songs and lyrics, revealing how she found an opportunity to rebel against arbitrary restrictions for women of colour in punk – a movement the film describes as ‘filled with people that nobody else wanted’. Poly used the platform to filter her ideas into the mainstream and actualise herself on her own terms.
The documentary follows Poly as she plucks her stage name out of the phonebook – wanting something plastic and synthetic sounding that would embody her visions of the hyper-consumerist way of life she saw for the future – and through her wildly successful career as front-woman for X-Ray Spex. In archival footage, we see a journalist ask a young Poly: ‘Are you are a rebel?’. She stops for a moment, looks down and considers the question: ‘Yeah, I suppose I am,’ she says with a cheeky smile. A rebel, yes, and so much more. We hear from a selection of guest narrators such as Kathleen Hanna, Thurston Moore, Neneh Cherry, Don Letts and Vivienne Westwood, who tell inspired tales about Poly. However, as the first woman of colour to front a successful rock bank and infiltrate an industry gatekept by white, middle-class men – who feared women stepping into spaces of power and proving what they could do – the inspiring potential of Poly’s music speaks for itself. The pivotal moment in Poly’s career comes with the release of “Oh Bondage, Up Yours”, a song that still feels like a call to arms for all victims of oppression: “Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think, oh bondage, up yours!” With these words, Poly’s fame skyrocketed, and her brand of pseudo-anger morphed into a version of punk more punk than punk itself. The early scenes in the documentary paint Poly Styrene’s story as a triumphant tale of an intelligent woman jibing against prickly subjects such as racism, misogyny and capitalism and coming out on top. Yet, as the film later reveals, snapshots taken from Poly’s time in X-Ray Spex do not depict the entire story.
It falls on Celeste’s shoulders to expose the actual events taking place behind the scenes of Poly’s newfound fame. On top of celebrity’s dystopian trappings, her exhausting touring schedule and casual drug-use, the brands of ‘trailblazer’ and’ radical ideologist’ brought with them immense pressure. After crossing the pond to play in New York’s iconic CBGB, surrounded by excessive, disposable Americana, Poly’s mental state took a turn for the worst: ‘I want to be Marianne again’ she begs on the verge of exhaustion and breakdown. One of the most shocking parts of the documentary follows Poly as she shaves her head in a rebellion against her emerging ‘sex symbol’ status. The action, Celeste reveals – taken on surface value as feminist disobedience – was actually a massive cry for help.
Celeste’s aim to separate her mother from her almost mythical punk legend is the documentary’s main focal point. We follow Poly out of her heyday and into the darkness of being sectioned, misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, and her eventual battle with cancer. Celeste also breaks down the difficulties of her childhood: living in an ashram with devote followers of Hare Krishna, the side-effects of her mother’s mental health and subsequent negligence, and having to move in with her Grandmother – an act that fragmented her relationship with her mother.
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is a journey of highs and lows, unflinching in its execution and narrative flow. Through sometimes difficult and mildly harrowing to contend with, there’s a deep, honest beauty interwoven into every moment of the film that speaks to the unbreakable, universal bonds between a mother and daughter – the kind that exists beyond the limitations of time and death.
The efforts of Celeste Bell and Paul Sng to continue a legacy thrust upon them cruelly and too soon is a distinctive, timeless piece of work, and a gift to all those who feel connected to Poly’s profoundly intelligent writing or daring, era-defining music.