Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (
dir: Paul Sng/Celeste Bell
written by Zoë Howe/ Celeste Bell
I am old enough to remember pogoing to X-Ray Spex at the school disco and approximating the band’s jagged logo in biro and felt tip on an exercise book. I was too young to care about what the impact of punk rock might be on music let alone its importance in socio-historical terms. To my 12/13 year old self Poly Styrene was simply a pop star not a punk rocker. From the front cover of Smash Hits to the TV screen on Top of the Pops, Poly’s peculiar fashion style set her apart. Her youth, her visible braces, the awkward way she swayed and that seemingly untrained screech of a voice made her accessible and identifiable. We’d seen the band’s name as an advert in American comic books: the red swirled glasses, the impossibility of the raised skeletal hand. And her song lyrics seemed strange yet familiar. There were brand names. Deodorants. Antiseptic. And Woolworths. Even in my little town we’d all been to Woolworths and stared at odd adult things like we were inside some kind of alien museum. To me and my soon to be teenage friends X-Ray Spex made sense.
Poly Styrene’s continued importance in British music history is assured for anybody that cares to look. Her influence and inspiration acknowledged by those that came shortly afterwards including Neneh Cherry, Pauline Black and Rhoda Dakar (all heard here) and those that came much later including FKA Twigs and more. Whether there is a need for the wider public to be introduced to X-Ray Spex is a question that in some ways this documentary side steps. It would have been simple to run through the history of the band, chart their highs and lows and fill the screen with sidekicks and acolytes. For the most part Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché avoids doing that. Indeed the passages of traditional “rockumentary” are perhaps the films weakest elements. The band chronology is sometimes hard to follow, the performance clips are somewhat meagre; An undated appearance on a German TV show is returned to frequently as is a very brief clip of the early Spex featuring founding sax player Lora Logic. There are talking-heads but the nodding ennui of the format is swerved by the wise idea of using voices only playing out over judicious edits of telling library footage.
One thing that does becomes clear in the extracts from Poly’s diaries (skilfully narrated by Ruth Negga) is just how sharp a writer and commentator she was. Diary entries expand on the perils of consumerism that featured in her lyrics, an entry concerning an early visit to the USA being particularly sharp. Early poems investigate identity and the complications of her heritage.
The real story of this film though, and what sets it apart, is the journey Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell, acting as narrator and curator, takes in rediscovering and reconnecting with her late mother. Bell had stated she intended to make sure her mother’s artistic legacy was given the recognition it deserves and she successfully contextualizes her mother’s place as a mixed race female performer who put herself in the firing line. There are clips where Poly seems baffled by the banality of the (usually male) interviewer’s questions. Another disturbing sequence sees her swarmed by male fans as she attempts to leave a stage. In interviews Poly expresses how uncomfortable she is being trapped in the spotlight. There are warning signs, including an incident at Johnny Rotten’s house, seemingly ignored for the benefit of the band and later, at crisis point, there is misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment.
In embracing her mother’s psychiatric history and centering much of the documentary on its repercussions Bell is able to tell an important auto/biographical story of a person caught in a cycle of mental health crises and the effect that that has on the individual and their family. It’s a brave approach and the result is a poignant, frequently beautiful film that speaks as much about what it is to be a human and a mother and a daughter as it does on what it is to be a rock star.
Main Image: Falcon Stuart
Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché (2021) dir: Paul Sng/ Celeste Bell written by Zoë Howe/ Celeste Bell.
The film has a virtual release in the UK on March 5th. The US premiere is at SXSW.
Poly Styrene Film Website here