Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché
Narration: Ruth Negga
This affecting and insightful documentary about the prodigiously talented X-Ray Spex frontwoman Polly Styrene, co-directed by her daughter Celeste Bell is part family memoir and partly trad rock doc, which rightly posits the artist as a hugely influential figure.
Marianne Elliott-Said was born in 1957 to a Scottish Irish mother and largely absent Somali dock worker and raised in Brixton. Mercurially talented, a nascent fashion designer and poet, she filled her notebook with poems and observations about contemporary life and consumer culture, the artificiality of which fascinated and repelled her, and she changed her name accordingly. Actor Ruth Negga narrates a selection of Polly’s diary entries.
After seeing the Sex Pistols in 1976 she formed the band X-Ray Spex where her five-minutes-into-the-future dystopian words were set to a ragged New Wave sound. Commercial success followed with songs such ‘Germ Free Adolescent’ and ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’, but fame didn’t sit easily with her. A trip to New York City where X-Ray Spex played a residency at legendary punk club CBGB saw the heat and flash of the scuzzy city compounding Polly’s mental health problems. After a gig in Doncaster in 1978, where she had a vision of lights in the sky, her mother took her to the hospital where she was wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic (only in 1991 was she correctly identified as bi-polar disorder).
Her musical output was very sporadic and sparing through the 80s, and in 1993 she joined the Hari Krishna movement. The more languid latter part of the documentary has Bell reflecting on her childhood with her troubled mother while leafing through ‘Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story’, the book she co-wrote with Zoë Howe.
The picture conjures up a vivid feel for the squalid late 70s and the burgeoning punk scene (it would make a good double bill with recent Rock Against Racism documentary ‘White Riot’), but also exposes some of the contradictions at punk’s heart. While it could be a welcoming environment for hitherto excluded minorities, it was also rife with sexism, illustrated by film of old interviews in which Polly is grilled by condescending male journalists, and in the recounting of her grim relationship with the Sex Pistols.
As well as the archive footage the film boasts a fine selection of interviewees, including contemporaries such as Vivienne Westwood, Neneh Cherry, and Don Letts, and musicians she influenced like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, the latter who relates an amusing anecdote of how Polly ‘knighted’ him at one of X-Ray Spex’s CBGB gigs.
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is available to stream from 5th March.
Follow David on @DWill_Crackfilm