“In a world of Kardashians, be Poly Styrene”. This documentary features these words and proves that she was one true punk original.
'Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché' is a warm portrait that is as artful as its colourful subject. Poly Styrene – born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said – was the front woman of English punk rockers, X-Ray Spex. She was also the inspiration for no less than Neneh Cherry, and the riot grrrl and Afropunk music movements. This film is a lovingly-assembled look at this fierce and creative outsider.
Celeste Bell – Poly Styrene’s only child – co-directs this film along with Paul Sng. Bell had previously co-authored the book 'Dayglo' about her mother, a woman she had a rather tumultuous relationship with. This tome forms the basis for this film where Bell examines the differences between Poly Styrene’s punk public persona, and that of a private and somewhat reluctant mother. The result straddles the lines between sympathy for its enigmatic subject and candid frankness. Bell ultimately offers up her own personal recollections, even though it could be said that Poly Styrene never needed help in the storytelling department.
Elliott-Said was born in England to a Scottish-Irish mother and a Somali father. A spirited working-class woman, she would adopt the stage name Poly Styrene after finding it in the Yellow Pages. A stunning wordsmith, she would channel her inner demons into her poetry. She would find her initial home with the punks, as this movement was home for outsiders. Elliott-Said was subjected to both racism and misogyny throughout her life.
Poly Styrene’s lyrics were often simple and direct but they also had an incredible vibrancy. This is evident in her band’s biggest hit, 'Oh Bondage, Up Yours!'. The soundtrack to this film features many of the band’s incendiary tunes and makes the proceedings worth the price of admission alone. Poly Styrene appears in the film through archive TV interviews (including one with our very own Molly Meldrum), and her poetry and diary entries are read aloud by actress, Ruth Negga.
The film has a run-time of 96 minutes and could have been a little longer, especially at looking at Poly Styrene’s post X-Ray life. She grappled with mental illness after being misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic – later corrected to bipolar disorder. She would join the Hare Krishna movement and reconcile with Bell for her solo album, 'Generation Indigo'. It would be her last, as she received a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2011.
This film is an intimate one that captures Poly Styrene’s essence including her artworks, homemade clothes and poetry. Bell interviews people like Elliott-Said’s sister, Don Letts, Vivienne Westwood, Thurston Moore and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hana. None of these individuals appear on screen. Instead, the filmmakers cut to photographs (material predominantly centred on its subject) and newsreel footage. This gives it the sense that this is Poly Styrene’s stage and lends an artistic edge to a portrait that is largely chronological.
'I Am A Cliché' is a detailed look at the highs and lows of Poly Styrene’s life and career. It shows a woman who was unconventional by nature and thus so inspiring to so many creatives. Poly Styrene was a clever and vibrant punk rock icon and this film captures every inch of her Dayglo spirit.
'Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché' is screening at Sydney Underground Film Festival.