The punk anthem “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” was released by the band X-Ray Spex ten years before I was born, yet the first time I heard it as an angsty teenager it felt as prescient as ever. Just as much an outburst against aggressive consumerism as it is a feminist call to arms — if not more so — it’s impossible to hear Poly Styrene’s voice screaming those lyrics and not feel equal parts enraged and empowered.
A mixed-race woman fronting a rock band in the 1970s while the National Front was spreading its racist rhetoric throughout the UK, with a mouthful of metal braces and a closetful of futuristic homemade fashions, Poly Styrene was a unique artist who remains an iconic figure to this day, with her influence felt everywhere from Afropunk to Riot Grrrl. Yet to many, the real woman behind all this musical myth-making remains an enigma. That’s bound to change with the fascinating new documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Clichè, co-directed by the singer’s daughter Celeste Bell with Paul Sng, which explores Poly’s trailblazing career as well as her personal struggles with a great deal of admiration and empathy.
Identity is the Crisis
When Poly Styrene — born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said to an English legal secretary and a Somali dock worker—died of cancer at the age of 53 in 2011, she left her artistic legacy in the hands of the daughter with whom she had a tumultuous relationship throughout much of her life. In addition to the racism and misogyny that Poly faced throughout her life and career, she also struggled with mental illness; her bipolar disorder was originally misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, and she was institutionalized at what was essentially the height of her career fronting the groundbreaking band X-Ray Spex.
Following the dissolution of the band after a mere three years and one album, Poly discovered the Hare Krishna movement and lived for a time at the sect’s commune in the English countryside. But her focus was often elsewhere from her young daughter, Celeste, who suffered from hunger and neglect while in Poly’s care. Soon, Celeste echoed her mother’s earlier rebellion in running away from home and abandoning the commune to seek refuge, and some semblance of normality, first in London, then in Madrid.
In Poly Styrene: I Am A Clichè, the adult Celeste opens her mother’s archives and visits the most influential and important places in her life. She walks the piers where her mother hung out as a teenage hippie, a perpetual outsider who was too Black for the white kids and too white for the Black kids; gazes up at the glowing neon lights that overwhelmed Poly while she was in New York to play the legendary CBGB’s and helped instigate her eventual breakdown; and goes to India to spread her mother’s ashes in the place that changed her life. Throughout, Celeste narrates in surprisingly calm, measured tones her memories of her mother and the way those have evolved and changed over time.
Seen and Heard
While the two women reconciled prior to Poly’s death, it is clear that Celeste still carries a lot of baggage from her childhood; here, she carefully unpacks it and examines it, revealing as much of herself in the process as she does her mother. The result is an intimate portrait of a legendary life that manages to avoid falling into the traps that snag so many other projects spearheaded by artists’ close relations, too focused on protecting legacies to reveal anything of substance. On the contrary, Celeste understands that the only appropriate way to honor Poly Styrene as both an artist and a woman is to explore all sides of her life: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In doing so, one gets a sense of all the complexities that made Poly’s music so memorable and impactful.
Celeste is not the only person who weighs in on Poly’s complicated legacy in this film, though her revelations are obviously some of the most personal and affecting. Other close relations, such as Poly’s sister and ex-husband (Celeste’s father), describe the woman they knew and loved for her creativity and free spirit. Members of X-Ray Spex, designer Vivienne Westwood, and musicians Thurston Moore, Kathleen Hanna, and Neneh Cherry also weigh in, with Moore reminiscing about seeing X-Ray Spex onstage at CBGB’s and Cherry discussing how Poly influenced her as a female artist of color. None of these people, with the prominent exception of Celeste, are actually seen on screen in the film; their memories are shared as audio-only, layered over archival footage of Poly herself.
In addition to the plethora of compelling video that the film makes use of — everything from live concert footage to awkward television interviews to clips from inside the Hare Krishna commune — Poly Styrene: I Am A Clichè also brings many of Poly’s diary entries to life. The acclaimed actress Ruth Negga — who, like Poly, is mixed-race — gives a voice to her remarkable words on everything from racial identity to the rejection of consumerism. An inspired choice that pays off in a big way, Negga nails the recognizable cadences of Poly’s speech; if one didn’t know that it was her, it would be easy to be convinced that we were hearing directly from Poly herself.
From her status as a famous mixed-raced woman at a time when that was still seen as rare in society, to her interactions with many other luminaries of the punk movement, Poly Styrene’s life was truly a reflection of the rapid cultural changes that England and the world were undergoing at the time. In watching her, and listening to her, and hearing about her, one gets a colorful, albeit incredibly messy, portrait of the world during the late twentieth century. She brought the maxim “the personal is political” to life with an electric energy that few could ever match, then and now. It’s important to keep her legacy alive, while at the same time recognizing that behind the iconic music and photos she was a real, flawed woman. Poly Styrene: I Am A Clichè does exactly that.
What do you think? Are you familiar with the music of X-Ray Spex and Poly Styrene? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Clichè opens in theaters in the U.S. for one night only on February 2, 2022. It is available everywhere on demand on February 4, 2022.
Watch Poly Styrene: I Am A Clichè
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