Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché – punk documentary gets Canadian premiere
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, is based around the death of punk icon and X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene, that sends her daughter on a journey across the world and through her mother’s archives to reconcile their fraught relationship. The film opens at Toronto’s Hot Docs virtual cinema on April 29, 2021.
Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard
But I say…
Oh Bondage! Up yours!
1, 2, 3, 4!
Poly Styrene was the first woman of colour in the UK to front a successful rock band. She introduced the world to a new sound of rebellion, using her unconventional voice to sing about identity, consumerism, postmodernism, and everything she saw unfolding in late 1970s Britain, with a rare prescience. As the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, the Anglo-Somali punk musician was also a key inspiration for the riot grrrl and Afropunk movements.But the late punk maverick didn’t just leave behind an immense cultural footprint. She was survived by a daughter, Celeste Bell, who became the unwitting guardian of her mother’s legacy and her mother’s demons. Misogyny, racism, and mental illness plagued Poly’s life, while their lasting trauma scarred Celeste’s childhood and the pair’s relationship. Featuring unseen archive material and rare diary entries narrated by Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga, this documentary follows Celeste as she examines her mother’s unopened artistic archive and traverses three continents to better understand Poly the icon and Poly the mother.
The film opens with Celeste recounting the memories of her mother, and having to take on the role of the “caretaker of her legacy,” being the only child. It became evident after the funeral that it was something she’d have to do, but struggled for years how and where to begin. She was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love at the funeral from strangers she had never met. This was when she realized there was her mother, Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, who died at the age of 53 from breast cancer, and the persona of Poly Styrene whom she was known as to others.
Mary became Poly after seeing a Sex Pistols show on her 19th birthday. From that point onward, her world forever changed. She came up with the concept for X-Ray Spex, and put the backing band together herself. While in the band, she designed all her own outfits and even ran her own clothing shop in trendy London. She chose the name Poly Styrene randomly from the Yellow Pages “to have something current.”
She was born into a mixed race family, with a white mother and black father, and encountered lots of racism from both sides, being labeled the derogatory terms, “half-caste.” Despite this obstacle in life, she forged forward and never shied away from speaking her mind or being in the spotlight. Throughout the film she is constantly seen with a big smile, and her braces shining brightly. She was well versed in politics, and embraced the non-conformity of culture, something she sang about in the song, Identity. She went so far as to shave her head in defiance of labels and gender.
As with most bands who somehow find themselves taken over by the industry of managers, publicists, and other handlers, the toll of sudden fame started to wear on her. It was during the bands residency at CBGB’s in New York City that she really started to turn insular and began a downward spiral. She was questioning reality, and the attributes of fame being unnatural. She was a shy, sensitive, creative individual at heart, and used music as a way of expressing her feelings. She reached a point of despair when she stated, “I want to go back,” referring to Marianne, not Poly.
Throughout the film she has premonitions and visions that only she can see and relate to, which unfortunately lands her in the psychiatric ward being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, before being labeled as having a bipolar disorder. This brings to light the discussion around how being overly creative can be seen as an illness to others, when in fact she may have been on a spectrum of spiritual existentialism, or have had psychic abilities.
While in the hospital, she was told that she would never work again. She decided that Poly would have to die in order for Mary to survive, so she disbanded the band and left England and her family to live in India, a place that had been calling her since childhood. She delved into the Hare Krishna religion, and finally felt at home.
When she returned to England, she had separated from her husband and kept custody of her child Celeste, until Social Services took her away, declaring Marianne as an unfit mother. It was a dark period in time for both mother and child, however years later the pair reunited and became closer than ever, both gaining a stronger understanding for each other. Poly was about to return, starting to write songs, and even thinking about touring again. She was then diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her days were limited. Before her time was up though, she did make it back up onstage for a performance, and there’s a scene where Celeste is up on stage singing and dancing to the classic, Oh Bondage, Up Yours.
After her death, Celeste made the pilgrimage to India to spread her mother’s ashes, as per her request. It also gave Celeste an opportunity to further understand the mother she truly loved. The film closes with Celeste reiterating, “Death is just the beginning, even if it feels like the end.”
DIRECTORS’ STATEMENTS | Celeste Bell
My mum wasn’t like other mums. To say my childhood was unusual would have been an understatement. From my early years living in George Harrison’s Hare Krishna mansion to being removed from my mother’s care due to her mental health woes and finding myself in a rough Brixton school; living with my grandmother in the same house my mother had spent her teenage years, life was anything but boring. It was not until my mother passed that I was left an extensive archive of her artwork, poems, and images that her late manager had been keeping all these years, that I was finally able to piece together the many different personas my mother adopted during her life. Was it because she had left X-Ray Spex after only one album, leaving the band in large part due to a nervous breakdown at the age of 21? Was it because she was a woman who refused to be sexualised? Was it because she was a young woman of colour in an industry dominated by older white men? Or was it simply because the themes my mother was exploring in Germ Free Adolescents, rampant consumerism, virtual reality, and genetic engineering, were themes which can only be appreciated in today’s world, a world in which much of what she was predicting came to pass? Whatever the reasons, I decided I would make sure my mother’s artistic legacy was given the recognition she deserves. This film is a testimony to a woman whose story needs to be told.
Read this review and interview in Jezebel to find out more.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.