Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, form Modern Films, is not your average documentary about a musician. This could be because Poly Styrene, the late lead singer of the punk band X-Ray Spex, wan’t your average musician. Even in the UK’s 1970s punk scene she stood out. For in the almost exclusively all white, and predominately male world, she was a mixed raced woman fronting a band.
In point of fact Poly Styrene was the first woman of colour to front a pop band in the UK. So in spite of X-Ray Spex only ever releasing one album Poly Styrene’s influence on pop music can’t be underestimated. Even new bands forming today, especially those fronted by women of colour, look to her as inspiration.
However, Marianne Joan Elliot-Said, the daughter of a Scottish born legal secretary and Somalian merchant marine, was more than just a pop star. She was also a mother. And while this movie traces Poly Styrene’s life and career, its framed around her daughter’s quest to understand her mother and her legacy.
We follow Poly Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell, who also co-directed the film with Paul Sng, as she travels the world from New York City to India in her mother’s footsteps to try and come to grips with who this woman was. As the inheritor of her mother’s estate she also had access to archives of her mother’s poetry and diaries – both of which contribute to both the film and our understanding of this complex and intelligent woman.
Like many documentaries of this type the story of Poly Styrene is pushed along through interviews with various contemporaries and those she influenced. Along the way we hear from from her sister and her ex husband (Celeste’s father), Nenah Cherry, members of Ex-Ray-Spex, and other musicians and friends.
Unlike most documentaries these voices are seen but not heard. They talk over the visuals and augment the story instead of becoming part of the story. The effect is that while we’re listening to them our focus stays on the subject of the film.
One of the techniques Bell and Sng use to help bring Poly Styrene to life is having actor Ruth Negga read parts of her diary and some of her poetry . From early excerpts where she talks about her 18th birthday to latter entries dealing with the band and other aspects of her life these readings give us a perspective we don’t often see in music documentaries.
Aside from growing up mixed race in Great Britain in the 60s and the 70s, and dealing with the male dominated world of pop music, Poly Styrene also had to deal with the stigma of mental illness. When she was 21, after the release of X-Ray Spex’s only album, she suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized.
Initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenic she was given the wrong medication until she was properly diagnosed as Bi-polar. None of this made for what anyone would call a stable upbringing for a child.
For Bell was born only a few years after this time. Her description of her childhood – her mother running off to India and leaving her in the care of her grandma and her dad and then mother and daughter moving into the Hari Krishna Ashram in the UK – sounds chaotic at best.
Eventually, when it became obvious her mother could no longer cope, Bell was placed in her grandmother’s custody. It was only later that she began to reconnect to her mother, only to have her taken away by breast cancer in 2011.
In some ways this movie is as much about Bell’s journey to understand her mother as it is about Poly Styrene. However, as she pulls back the curtain on what she finds out about her mother’s life we are privileged to be allowed to see what is revealed.
Poly Styrene is probably not a household name like others far less deserving from her era, and her band only put out one album, but as this movie makes clear her influence was far reaching. The impression the movie leaves us with is of a brilliant and passionate woman who was not only ahead of her time by decades who overcame obstacles we can’t even begin to imagine.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is a heartbreaking and empowering film telling the story of one of the great figures of British punk. A beautiful movie and a fitting tribute to a musical icon.