Documentaries don’t get much more personal than Celeste Bell and Paul Sng’s poignant, revealing Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche. Like Bell’s 2018 book, Day Glo: The Poly Styrene Story, it tells the fascinating story of the memorable but too-short life of Bell’s mother, British punk pioneer Marianne Joan Elliott-Said (aka Poly Styrene), who fronted the band X-Ray Spex in the 1970s and earned recognition for songs like “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”
Bell narrates much of the film, sharing her complex feelings about her mother: pride in Styrene’s status as a musical trailblazer, empathy for the challenges Styrene faced during her time in the spotlight, anger at her for being an irresponsible mother, and sadness that their time together after reconciling was cut short by the metastatic breast cancer that took Styrene’s life in 2011. Bell and co-director Sng also include vintage clips of Styrene performing and being interviewed, as well as reflections from her friends/peers and excerpts from Styrene’s personal diaries (which are read by actress Ruth Negga).
The picture that emerges is one of a thoughtful, bright young woman who had a strong mischievous streak and plenty to say about feminism, racism, and the state of the world in the ’70s but was ultimately derailed by stress, worry, and debilitating mental illness. Styrene’s journey from south London to the exciting punk scene in Manhattan’s East Village to the peace and love of the Hare Krishna movement is full of twists and turns and brushes with bold-faced ’70s names. It’s never boring.
And neither is Bell and Sng’s film. Whether you’re well-versed in punk history or learning about Styrene for the first time, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche is full of engaging anecdotes and fascinating glimpses at pop culture milestones. It’s also a moving tribute to a mother from a daughter who’s still grieving her tremendous loss. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Sherin Nicole Poly Styrene—British punk prototype, Somali woman of bi-ethnic heritage, rebel artist often called by names she did not choose, definer of her own identity. An icon who goes underrecognized. The documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is a visual journal, recorded in two sets of handwriting. The first is from Styrene herself, the second is her daughter Celeste Bell’s. Although the origin story of Marianne Joan Elliott-Said aka Poly Styrene is an informative one, I found myself longing for visuals that are as punk-rock as she was; an artsy neon-colored format that gets loud as much as it reflects. Instead, the film by Bell and Paul Sng is meditative, ultimately becoming a work of catharsis through which Bell reconciles herself to the many hues of the colorful life she lived alongside her mother.
Pam Grady: The front woman of the pioneering punk rock band X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene was a minority within a minority, a woman working within the majority-male UK music scene of the 1970s and ’80s and a biracial woman within that overwhelmingly white world. A magnetic, irrepressible presence, she entered the punk pantheon with her boisterous anthem, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” but hers was a life beset by challenges, including a vicious battle with breast cancer that killed her in 2011. Her daughter, Celeste Bell, follows up her 2018 biography, Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story (written with Zoë Howe) with this loving and involving documentary she co-directs with Paul Sng. Bell adds her own memories to the recollections of relatives, friends, and Styrene’s bandmates, but the voice that rings loudest is Styrene’s own in archival clips and band footage that still thrills more than four decades after this singular woman first commanded a stage.
Marilyn Ferdinand In the early days of punk rock in the United Kingdom, a disaffected, mixed-race young woman from the projects of London’s Brixton neighborhood saw an early Sex Pistols performance and decided to form a band. That band, X-Ray Spex, and that young woman, self-christened Poly Styrene, took the new music scene by storm. Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché documents the life and times of the former Marianne Joan Elliot-Said through the eyes of her daughter, Celeste Bell, and the bandmates, lovers, music colleagues, and family members who were inspired by her, angered by her, and deeply concerned about her. A hippie at heart, Poly was extremely sensitive, which was an important source of her creativity, but also a dangerous vulnerability. Bell recounts Poly’s mental turmoil, her eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and the relative stability she found in the Hare Krishna movement. Generous clips of X-Ray Spex performances, interviews, and Poly’s own words voiced by Ruth Negga round out an interesting picture of a music pioneer.
Leslie Combemale Scheduled for release in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the first X-Ray Spex album Germfree Adolescents, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is based on Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell and Zoë Howe’s biography Day Flo: The Poly Styrene Story. Co-directed and narrated by Bell, the film is more than the profile of an iconoclastic trailblazer, spiritual seeker, and uncompromising role model for female artists of color that was Poly Styrene. It captures the experience of one mother and daughter, the challenges of mental illness and how it can impact the children of those afflicted with it, and the healing between parent and child that can happen with hard work, therapy, and the grace of forgiveness.
Jennifer Merin Poly Sterene: I Am a Cliche is an intimate and compelling biodoc about Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, aka Poly Sterene, the cheeky British punk rocker who composed and fronted on X-Ray Spex’s 1977 smash hit “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” from the album Germfree Adolescence. While the band’s output was limited, this song in particular and Poly Styrene have ongoing status as popular culture icons. But as Celeste Bell and Paul Sng’s moving, sensitive documentary shows, there was an ongoing behind-the-scenes tug of war between the distinct and contrary personas of Sterene, the public vibrantly cheeky punk icon and Marianne, the private woman behind that powerful nom de voix. Into the documentary’s up close and extremely personal cinematic environment comes co-director Celeste Bell herself – the film subject’s daughter – who tells of the challenges her mother faced as her fame grew and her mental health deteriorated. Bell also reveals her own challenges as the daughter of a deeply troubled mom who was constantly in the public view.
Loren King As Pauline Black of the band “The Selecter,” puts it, “The world is playing catch up with Poly Styrene, not the other way around.” That’s one of many insights and revelations in the documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche, about the musician and writer who blazed a trail in the London punk/rock scene between 1976 and 1979 with the band she founded and fronted X-Ray Spex. The documentary is co-directed by Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell and represents the young woman’s moving attempt to chronicle and honor her mother’s life and to reconcile their often fraught relationship. Read full review.
Nell Minow: This tender cinematic tribute from a daughter to her mother is touching and insightful about Poly Styrene and her era. We almost feel that we can see her daughter, Celeste Bell, working through her grief and her conflicted emotions about the past. It follows in what is becoming a remarkable genre of its own, documentary as therapy with filmmakers making movies about their parents, including Tarnation, My Architect, Tell Them Who You Are, Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me, and The Man Nobody Knew.
Sandie Angulo Chen:Even if you’ve never heard of British punk pioneer Poly Styrene (given name Marianne Elliott-Said) or X-Ray Spex, this documentary is worth checking out. Directed by her daughter Celeste Bell-Dos Santos and Paul Sng, the film is a fascinating chronicle of the half-Scottish/Irish, half-Somali vocalist’s unconventional career and life (she died of cancer at age 53 in 2011). Celeste grounds the film through narration and emotional on-camera conversation, and actress Ruth Negga reads Poly’s lyrics, correspondence, and quotes whenever there’s not footage of her speaking or performing on camera. A young feminist and activist, Poly is independent, intelligent, and kind. Her very existence was punk – as a defiant mixed-race woman in the not-yet multicultural city of London. What a powerful tribute from a daughter to her extraordinary mother.
Susan Wloszczyna: I wasn’t acquainted with Poly Styrene, aka Marian Joan Elliot-Said, the frontwoman of England’s X-Ray Spex. This mixed-race daughter of a Somali dockworker and a Scottish-Irish legal secretary initially filled her time with travel, sewing alternative fashions and failing as a pop-reggae singer. But she stopped in her tracks when she saw the Sex Pistols perform on her 19th birthday and that was how her stage persona was born. That gave her a chance to put together a band with three male musicians along with female saxophonist Lora Logic, whose instrument went way outside the punk aesthetic. Styrene even designed the logo for the band and was fond of Day-Glo colors. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore Celeste Bell plays a dual role as director and subject in this documentary, as she grapples with her legendary mother’s effect on the music industry as well as on her own childhood. Poly Styrene was a rebel punk icon whose lyrics reverberate as loudly today as they did in the 70s. The film embraces it all, delving into mental health, race, consumer culture, religion, and breaking barriers. You can go ahead and add Poly Sterene: I Am a Cliche to a growing list a great rock docs.
Cate Marquis Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche is a biopic about British punk rocker Poly Styrene, a bold ground-breaker who fronted and founded the band X-Ray Spex but whose real name was Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, a sensitive, London-born bi-racial woman who struggled with mental illness. Anything but cliche, Poly Styrene was a electric figure on stage, defying a male dominated world to front her own band, writing and singing her own songs, and even making own wildly inventive clothes. Yet off-stage, Marianne battled issues in her personal life, as revealed in this insightful, personal biography co-redirected by her daughter Celeste Bell along with Paul Sng, with Ruth Negga reading excerpts from the late singer’s writings. Even if you have never heard of Poly Styrene or X-Ray Spex, this is a fascinating documentary, featuring interviews with a host of punk icons, concert footage, and insights from Bell and others into this remarkable but troubled woman’s life.
Title: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché
Directors: Celeste Bell and Paul Sng
Release Date: February 4, 2022
Running Time: 134 minutes
Distribution Company: Utopia Distribution
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin