Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché
by Rachel Willis
Director Celeste Bell helps uncover her mother, X-Ray Spex singer and punk legend Poly Styrene, in the documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché.
Co-directed with Paul Sng, Bell dives deep into the circumstances that steered her mother from “an ordinary kid from an ordinary street” to punk rock icon.
Born Marianne Elliott, the alter-ego Poly Styrene came from Elliott’s desire to connect the superfluity of pop stars with the culture’s increasing obsession with disposable commodities.
Ruth Negga (Passing) lends her voice to read Poly’s diary entries and poems, which helps convey the emotions in the icon’s words. Bell’s own narration, memories of her mother, and a collection of memorabilia help us discover the woman behind the image.
Numerous interviews with rock icons such as Thurston Moore, X-Ray Spex members Lora Logic and Paul Dean, writer Vivien Goldman and others, dig deeper into what Poly stood for as a commentator on the culture.
The documentary maintains a strong emphasis on Poly herself. Interviews happen as voiceovers while images onscreen portray the world in which Poly offered her strongest analysis and criticisms. Footage from concerts and interviews with Poly herself dictate the film’s focus.
However, this is more than a simple rock doc, as the film finds numerous ways to cement Poly’s story as larger commentary on contemporary society. Bruno Wizard lays it out best when he says: “She was a woman of color working with an industry full of middle class men that had it all their own way.” The pressure on Poly, as it is on women (especially women of color), was enormous.
Like many of Poly’s songs, the film illuminates the culture’s uglier realities, including the ways it tries to exclude people like Poly. In many ways, the punk scene was a natural fit, “full of people nobody else wanted.”
As the film dives deeper into Poly’s life story, her struggles with mental health are partially documented. While not the first woman to be misdiagnosed, it’s further critique on the systems in place that frequently fail to help women.
The third act falters as it shifts away from its strongest themes and relies on a more formulaic approach. The overarching criticism is neglected for a timeline of events in Poly’s life.
Despite the disappointing turn, the documentary is a lot like Poly herself: vulnerable, observant, and resilient. Like mother, like daughter one might say.