VOD film review: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché
Katherine McLaughlin | On 11, Mar 2021
Director: Celeste Bell, Paul Sng
Cast: Ruth Negga, Kathleen Hanna, Poly Styrene, Neneh Cherry
Watch Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché online in the UK: Sky Arts / NOW / BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / Modern Films.com
This meditative and intimate documentary sees iconic names in music, such as Neneh Cherry, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and The Raincoats’ Ana da Silva, pay tribute to the pioneering punk rock singer and founder of X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene (real name Marianne Elliott-Said), who passed away in 2011. Co-directed by daughter Celeste Bell and filmmaker Paul Sng, the film looks at the life and legacy of the trailblazing frontwoman who came of age in a London where National Front marches took place on her doorstep. Born to a White British mother and a Somali father in 1957, Poly Styrene experienced racism from an early age.
Select snippets from personal diary entries read aloud by Ruth Negga (who evokes the determined outsider spirit and vulnerability of Styrene with a beautiful voice performance) are incredibly revealing. Struggles with identity and misogyny combined with the open racism she faced, fuelled her early poems and lyrics, with her celebrated feminist battle cries from songs such as “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” (the B-side to this single provides the title for the film) loudly voicing malcontent with an increasingly materialistic society. The level of mass consumerism (and the drugs) she experienced in New York in 1978 while on tour only caused further disillusionment about where the world was heading. The film also shows her passion for subjects ranging from climate change to technology.
Music offered Styrene a liberating form of expression, but fame and insensitive comments about her appearance from interviewers were often crushing. Like many women pop stars before and after her, her confidence was eroded by overwhelming media attention and the superficiality and sexism of the industry. She shaved her head one day in John Lydon’s bathroom as protest.
In 1978, after a gig in Doncaster, she started to have strange visions; her worried mother took her to hospital and she was placed in a psychiatric institute and misdiagnosed with Schizophrenia (she actually had acute bipolar depression). The documentary takes a turn away from the punk scene to reflect on Styrene’s mental health during and after this period of time. It closely examines Styrene’s relationships with her daughter, partners and siblings. They all offer up valuable insight into family life and her decision to become a Hare Krishna.
While far from hagiography, Celeste Bell offers up kindness and understanding of her mother’s life. She shares the information that her grief made it difficult to face her mother’s extraordinary legacy and piece it all together. Bell’s emotive and frank approach – in between the moving voiceover from Negga, words from friends and superfans, archive footage and the energetic soundtrack – offers a searing yet down-to-earth portrait of a woman ahead of her time who raged against the system and the mainstream in the hope of finding herself.
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is available on Sky Arts until 5th April 2021. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.