Nineteen year old Marianne Elliot-Said saw the Sex Pistols play in Hastings in 1976. Within weeks she had advertised for band mates, reinvented herself as Poly Styrene and formed X-Ray Spex, one of the most distinctive bands to emerge from the punk explosion.
This new documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, is co-written and co-directed by her daughter Celeste Bell. It’s is a forceful and moving portrait of Poly Styrene’s conflicted experience of fame and the music industry—and her sometimes difficult relationship with her daughter.
Bell acts as a kind of host, providing narration to the story, her voice strikingly similar to her mum’s. She visits places Poly Styrene, who died in 2011, inhabited, trying to fill in gaps in her own knowledge of her mother’s life and experiences.
Poly was born in Brixton in 1957 to a white British mother and black Somali father, who didn’t stick around. The question of identity was central to her. She wrote a poem called “Half-caste” about this feeling of not fitting in either with the black kids or the white ones, but never being able to escape the racism around her. In her teenage years the fascist National Front was on the rise. This was the context in which punk was born—and which fed the need for the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism.
Poly personified the do-it-yourself attitude of punk. She made her own clothes from plastic table cloths and second-hand gear. She did the artwork for their records. She wrote and sang the songs. Her persona was sending-up stardom and the disposable consumer lifestyle that was increasingly taking over in Britain, following in the footsteps of the US. She was also rejecting the traditional role of the frontwoman—sex symbol. She was a powerful, bright, open woman attempting to create her own identity.
Yet, as we see in the film, the tone of media interviews as she gained stardom was increasingly nasty. Tony Wilson slimily introduces her, saying, “With those braces on her teeth she’s hardly Linda Ronstadt.” Janet Street-Porter repeatedly asks her if the way she dresses is intended to make people laugh.
She is soon exhausted by the relentless touring and media appearances. And, like so many other musicians from Amy Winehouse to Britney Spears, she doesn’t have the support around her to avoid serious consequences for her mental health.
Other than Celeste Bell’s role, all the footage in the film is of Poly herself, while voiceovers from friends, family and musicians tell stories about her. Fellow punk women Pauline Black of Selecter and Ana da Silva and Gina Birch from the Raincoats talk about her influence. They call the song Oh Bondage Up Yours! a call to arms for women everywhere. And, as Poly said in an interview at the time, not just women but everyone who is in bondage, who is oppressed.
Neneh Cherry tells us she started singing because of Poly Styrene. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth recalls the thrill of being in the front row when they played CBGBs in New York and Poly handed him the mic to sing, Up yours!
The film achieves a remarkable feat weaving together Poly’s inspiring performances, such as at the Rock Against Racism carnival in east London’s Victoria Park in 1978. And it also exposes her fragility and vulnerability in an industry that didn’t support her.
Celeste Bell works through all this as the daughter of a woman who had suffered extreme mental distress. But a woman who had also managed to heal and begin a tentative comeback in the early 2000s, before her premature death from cancer.
I Am A Cliché is an essential film, which compellingly proves just how relevant Poly Styrene still is in the 2020s.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché.
Director Paul Sng and Celeste Bell
The documentary airs on freeview channel Sky Arts at 9pm tonight and is available to rent from streaming services.