Vague Visages’ Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché review contains minor spoilers. Celeste Bell and Paul Sng’s 2021 documentary features Ruth Negga, John Lydon and Vivienne Westwood. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
With Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, Celeste Bell celebrates the legacy of her mother Marianne Elliott-Said — known better to the world as the inimitable X-Ray Spex leader Poly Styrene — in an intimate documentary, co-directed by Paul Sng, that is part memoir and part biography. Balancing the private and the public sides of the musician’s complex and complicated life, the filmmakers use their unprecedented access to cover both well-known and lesser-known dimensions of Poly Styrene’s remarkable career with sharp eyes and keen insights. Honoring the subject’s gift for future-thinking critiques of misogyny, commodification, consumer culture, class warfare, racial division, environment-choking petroleum products and a range of other social concerns, Bell and Sng put together a worthy tribute to a deserving original voice.
Bell appears throughout Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché as narrator and guide, drawing from her lovely 2019 book Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story, co-authored with Zoe Howe, who is also credited as one of the documentary’s writers. As Marianne’s only child, Bell acknowledges the heavy burdens and challenges of speaking for Styrene following the singer’s death in 2011 at the age of 53. The second half of the film examines Bell’s unconventional childhood, when Elliott-Said struggled with mental illness, misdiagnosis, prescription medication and institutionalization. Her participation in the Hare Krishna movement arguably exacerbated the inability to properly care for Bell. Following years of pain and mistrust, the two would reconcile.
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As a woman of color, Styrene’s incredible projection of powerful self-confidence was forged from the adversity of her childhood. Sng and Bell present an excellent explanation of the “nowhere land” inhabited by mixed-race children rejected as being neither Black nor white in the Brixton neighborhood where Mari often fended for herself while her single mother worked all day. The timing and conditions were just right for an awakening to the thrill and chaos of punk rock; Mari’s attendance at a life-changing Sex Pistols show led quickly to the formation of X-Ray Spex and the adoption of the Poly Styrene persona, which Elliott claimed to have selected from the Yellow Pages.
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Styrene’s image helped make her and break her. Once X-Ray Spex began receiving airplay, turning up on television and fielding interview requests, Styrene was constantly scrutinized for the braces on her teeth, her racial identity, her hair and her weight. In several archival clips, the subject deflects, defies and dismantles the vacant probes, but her frustration is palpable. Additional context is provided from writings and diary entries performed by Ruth Negga. The toll of fame and the rock life would reach a flashpoint when X-Ray Spex came to America for a residency at CBGB.
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The documentary’s title, “Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché,” references one of the classic songs that identifies a particular kind of self-reflection present in the original wave of popular punk recordings. Anthems of self-loathing were commonplace amidst the nihilism being explored by the angry and disaffected progenitors of the movement, but Styrene — as her very name implied — would regularly contemplate the thin line between the artificial and the authentic (one of the genre’s ultimate preoccupations). Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is not a critical deconstruction of X-Ray Spex’s music, but enough time is spent and enough awesome performance footage is included to send newcomers in search of Germfree Adolescents (1978) and more.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.
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