‘Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché’ reviewed

❉ We review the long-awaited punk pioneer profile following its World Premiere at Glasgow Film Festival.

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is a brilliant new documentary about the late punk icon and X Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene. Directed by Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell and documentary film maker Paul Sng and co-written by Celeste and Zoe Howe the film is a personal and honest journey chronicling both Poly’s life and Celeste’s sometimes dislocated upbringing and was part of a project that also included a book and an art exhibition.

The backbone of the documentary is the narration by Celeste and the voice-overs from band members, fans, cultural commentators, friends and Poly’s own sister Hazel Emmons. The film also uses extracts from Poly’s diary (read by Oscar nominee Ruth Negga) and the genesis of the film was a suitcase full of artwork, poems and memorabilia given to Celeste by ex-manager Falco Stuart after Poly’s death. Mingled with X Ray Spex performances and interviews from the ‘70s are clips from the 1979 BBC Arena documentary Who is Poly Styrene? -which is well worth a watch in itself.

Photo credit: Falcon Stuart. ‘Poly Styrene I Am A Cliché’.

X Ray Spex were nominally part of the punk scene in the ‘70s but offered a more intelligent and critical look at consumer culture than most punk bands and were genuinely (to use a cliché’!) “ahead of their time.”. Poly was a woman with a strong identity and an idiosyncratic look who designed her own clothes as well as writing all the songs and designing the artwork for the band. She was an inspiration to many who speak in this film including Neneh Cherry, Gina Birch, Pauline Black, Thurston Moore and journalist Lucy O’Brien. The film also examines the difficulties of a performer who seems to have seen through the whole fame and celebrity façade at an early age.

Born Marianne Elliott-Said of half British and half Somali heritage, Poly famously changed her name to Poly Styrene after seeing the words in the Yellow Pages. The film explores through the testimony of her sister the difficulty of being mixed race in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the racism and sexism which seemed to mould Poly’s personality.

‘Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché’. Credit: Tony Barratt.

It was a visit to New York and a feted performance at the legendary punk club CBGBs that seems to have precipitated a decline in Poly’s mental health. Reacting against New York’s extreme consumerism, and the attention which she found superficial and overwhelming, she began acting strangely as a result of acute bipolar disorder and was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and admitted to the Maudsley hospital – another case of being mislabelled and misunderstood. Joining a Hari Krishna temple seemed to give Poly a more balanced life but there were still problems which Celeste chronicles when talking of her own upbringing. Poly Styrene made a comeback with a concert at the Roundhouse and a critically acclaimed solo album Generation Indigo before her untimely death in 2011.

The film is not sentimental but is a moving portrait of Poly’s life with testimony from friends and band members such as Lora Logic, Paul Dean, Don Letts and John Robb. The archive clips are great – shots of the Roxy, Erics and CBGBS. Poly being interviewed by (sometimes patronising) male interviewers and shots of the band in New York are also mingled with beautiful shots of Hastings and India. Seeing and hearing performances of songs such as Oh Bondage Up Yours, Art-I-Ficial and The Day The World Turned Day Glo took me back in time and reminded me how these songs sound as good now as they ever have. A one-off artist and performer!             

‘POLY STYRENE: I AM A CLICHÉ’ (2021) Directed by Paul Sng and Celeste Bell; Narrated by Ruth Negga. UK Virtual Cinema Release Date Friday 5th March 2021. Available to watch via cinemas nationwide as listed on Modern Films. Viewers can select a participating local cinema to share the revenue of the virtual box office.

❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre.

Header image credit: Falcon Stuart: Poly Styrene I Am A Cliché. Image subject to copyright.

Become a patron at Patreon!