Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché tells its story from within the long arc of mourning. Co-director and narrator Celeste Bell recalls the funeral of her mother, Marion Elliott-Said, attended by “all these people who’d come to say goodbye to Poly Styrene, this famous person”. Had she been a good mother? Bell reflects: “It’s hard to know what to say.”
It is a sombre beginning for a film about a woman whose public persona fizzed with energy; whose image, in many viewers’ memories, will be fixed as a teenage punk in Day-glo skirt-suits and Lurex tights, braces on her teeth, bombing around the stage with a voice like an alarm call (“a little figure, not me,” Styrene says, perceptively, in an early TV interview). I Am a Cliché celebrates this energy but also asks what happens when it is not nurtured and when it goes wrong.
Poly Styrene’s band, X-Ray Spex, formed in 1976 and disbanded in 1979 after releasing only one album, but they – and Styrene in particular – were much photographed and filmed, leaving a rich archive for Bell and Paul Sng to draw from. Whether because of this material, or due to budgetary constraints, the usual talking-heads format of music documentaries is given a refreshing slant, as interviewees – including musicians Lora Logic, Thurston Moore and Neneh Cherry, designer Vivienne Westwood and many more – are heard and not seen. Actor Ruth Negga reads from Styrene’s diaries, adding to the film’s polyphonic, voice-led feel.
The directors skim the details of the X-Ray Spex story, instead focusing on social and political undercurrents. The film is especially sensitive to the complexities of racial identity, as Styrene was herself. The daughter of a Scottish-Irish mother and a Somalian father, she did not see herself reflected in post-war British culture. Interviews with Styrene’s Black and mixed-race contemporaries, such as Don Letts, The Bodysnatchers’ Rhoda Dakar and Pauline Black of The Selecter, add context on the racial tensions of the late 1970s.
Styrene’s ironising of consumer culture and what she calls “the plastic way of life” in her songs and clothes is a safety valve that fails suddenly when she has a breakdown in 1978. Exhausted from constant touring, she sees a UFO – “A bright ball of luminous pink energy, like a fireball” – and is admitted to the Maudsley Hospital in south London, prompting years in and out of the mental health system.
From this point, the film’s narrative becomes more finely tuned and gripping, in part because it becomes Bell’s story too. Born in the early 1980s, Bell’s early memories are of Bhaktivedanta Manor, the Hare Krishna temple in Hertfordshire where Styrene took her daughter to live after joining the movement. Bell, whose voice is uncannily like her mother’s, revisits the manor and relates the details of her erratic childhood calmly and with compassion.
The mother and daughter’s eventual reconciliation is bittersweet, given Styrene’s early death from cancer, aged only 53, shortly after making her first solo album in many years. The film’s closing sequence, in which Bell journeys to India to scatter Styrene’s ashes in the Yamuna river, is visually lush, perhaps too lush, but potential cliches are undercut by Bell’s ambivalent, self-aware script.
It is tempting to present stories like Poly Styrene’s as triumphant feminist parables, focusing only on barrier-breaking achievements, but Sng and Bell’s approach has more veracity, revealing how vulnerability and trauma can co-exist with abrasive music and fuck-you outfits, and that identity is often both hard won and exploited.
Thurston Moore’s top 10 punk rock filmsThurston Moore’s top 10 punk rock films
White Riot review: the story of rock’s anti-racist revival
By Sukhdev Sandhu
Film of the week: The Punk Singer
By So Mayer
Lovers Rock is a precious hand-me-down of hazy weekends past
By Candice Carty-Williams
Sight & Sound May 2021
In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy