Hot Docs 2021: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

I first discovered the magic of Poly Styrene a couple of years ago when I watched Fast Color, a 2018 sci-fi film about three generations of Black women with special abilities. The main character Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), plays an X-Ray Spex song and my partner, a punk rocker for life, recognized the song “Germfree Adolescents.” I was completely intrigued, and little did I know that this bi-racial punk singer (who we lost to breast cancer in 2011 at the age of 53) had such a legacy behind her. Born Marianne Elliott-Said, this Somali-English girl would become an icon in the punk rock scene of the 70s. As the first Black woman and bi-racial lead singer of a British punk band, she made her mark with the lyrics she wrote, how she looked and her straightforward approach to life.

This life is examined in the documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché by her daughter, director and writer Celeste Bell, along with co-screenwriter Zoë Howe, and co-director Paul Sng. Through a crowdfunding campaign, Bell raised funds for this dream-like collage of who her mother was and her struggle with mental illness. They also published an accompanying book, Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story, filled with Poly’s diary entries, photos and art, 40 years after the release of X-Ray Spex’s first album, Germfree Adolescents.

Celeste Bell embarks upon a journey of discovery following the death of her mother, punk icon Poly Styrene.
 Photo Credit: Poly Doc Ltd.

Bell interviews Poly’s band members Lora Logic and Paul Dean, loved ones, colleagues and people she’s influenced like Nenah Cherry, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and designer Vivienne Westwood. They all give an in-depth look at who her mother was as a person: loving, daring, and flawed; a young woman who would crumble under the pressures of fame. The narrative flows in an interesting way too. We don’t see the people who knew Poly Styrene; instead, we see images of her as only their voices recount their unforgettable experiences in her presence. Actor Ruth Negga narrates her diary excerpts as we see Poly’s art, videos, and photos – a visual scrapbook of her life and how she went against the grain to live it.

What struck me most in this documentary was the contradiction of Poly Styrene. She was a baby-faced girl with braces to the outside world, talking about the origins of her name plucked from the yellow pages, pleased she was called a rebel. And a rebel she was, having to deal with being bi-racial, a person in limbo, an outsider, plus everyday sexism. She had her own DIY fashion aesthetic that didn’t focus on showing off her body and a fearless approach to music. She was also a sensitive artist who wrote prophetic lyrics and could become easily overwhelmed. This constant tug of war within her psyche led to turmoil as the band rose in popularity. She wasn’t interested in the superficial, and that’s exactly what stardom brought. After a breakdown and band breakup, the world of Hare Krishna, and therapy, Poly Styrene would have to finally come to terms with herself. Bell also has to come to terms as she searches for the acceptance of both hers and her mother’s life, and the peace that reconciliation can bring.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is a touching tribute as Bell explores the painful path of memories surrounding Poly Styrene’s legacy as an icon, visionary, and young, vulnerable mother. See it at Hot Docs streaming in Canada from April 29.

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