Runtime: 89 minutes
Writers: Celeste Bell, Zoë Howe, and Paul Sng
Directors: Celeste Bell and Paul Sng
Stars: Celeste Bell, Marianne Elliott (Poly Styrene), Jonathan Ross, Kathleen Hanna, Thurston Moore, Neneh Cherry, Vivienne Westwood, Don Letts
By Valerie Kalfrin
In the intimate and moving documentary “Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché”(2021), filmmaker Celeste Bell sorts through photos, sketches, fliers, and memorabilia circa the 1970s British music scene, recalling what made her mother a groundbreaking punk icon. Yet she also unpacks the complex feelings surrounding her unconventional childhood and her appreciation for her mom as a person.
“I enjoyed piecing together the parts of her puzzle. Building a picture of who she’d been before me,” she says.
Shown at SXSW Online 2021, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and on Sky Arts, “Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” includes anecdotes and observations from Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, singer-songwriter Neneh Cherry, and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. While these shed light on what made Poly Styrene and her band, X-Ray Spex, so memorable, they’re just part of the kaleidoscope that was this woman’s life.
Born Marianne Elliott, the future Poly Styrene took her stage name from the Yellow Pages, thinking it a plastic, disposable sendup of a pop star. In 1976 at just nineteen, she placed a newspaper ad for “young punks who want to stick it together,” forming X-Ray Spex.
The band appeared on the BBC’s chart TV program “Top of the Pops” just two years later. X-Ray Spex became one of the first London punk bands to cross the pond, playing at New York City’s famed hole-in-the-wall CBGB, hanging around with Sex Pistols Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, and performing on the same bill as The Clash.
Fans loved Poly’s eclectic fashion style, her braces on her teeth, and her attitude in lyrics for “Identity,” “Germ Free Adolescence,” and “Oh Bondage, Up Yours.” The songs, Hanna recalls, talked about people treating others as commodities and being objectified, sentiments that were ahead of their time.
“To see my sister on that stage and to see the energy and the power and the expression … She was incredible to watch,” recalls Bell’s aunt Hazel Emmons.
Elliott also was dryly funny, something that she and Bell seem to share. People would stop the two on the street to say how much Poly Styrene meant to them, and Elliott later would “joke that being famous but broke was the worst of both worlds,” Bell notes.
Bell (“The One Show”) creates the feeling of overlapping memories by avoiding “talking head” interviews, instead using quotes from herself and her mother’s family, friends, and admirers as voiceover. Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga (“Loving”) reads from Elliott’s diary and poems.
Bell and co-director Paul Sng (“Social Housing, Social Cleansing”), who co-wrote the film with author Zoë Howe (“Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story”), also show Bell visiting places her mother had, such as a seaside boardwalk, India, and a stage, as if tracing her footsteps.
Although X-Ray Spex had its fans, some people referred to Poly Styrene, who was white and Somali, as “half caste,” which she found annoying and hurtful, Bell says. “It’s like saying you’re not quite whole. You’re just a part person. A fraction,” Bell recalls, adding that her mother eventually came to think, “I’m going to carve out a place in the world for myself.”
Being a sensitive soul with a misdiagnosed mental illness made that difficult, however. “Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” doesn’t delve deeply into any one episode, but peers recall Poly cutting off all her hair at Rotten’s home at one point, then revealing her shorn head in concert. “It was a powerful statement, but it was also a cry for help,” Bell says.
Still in her early 20s, Poly Styrene walked away from making music, then met and married Bell’s father. The relationship didn’t last, and Elliott later had a nervous breakdown and embraced the Hare Krishna movement.
She lost custody of Bell to the child’s maternal grandmother when Bell was eight. Bell remembers times when her mother was sedated, but she also talks about drawing on the walls and feeling “jealous” of her mother’s writing and music. “Creative people don’t always make the best parents,” Bell notes, her voice a mix of wistfulness and compassion.
The two “eventually found it in our hearts to forgive each other” and reconnected, even performing together. Elliott died in 2011 from breast cancer, a month before releasing a well-received album as Poly Styrene called “Generation Indigo.”
Some viewers might wish that Bell had revealed a little more about her own life, but putting her mom in the foreground shows her own healing. Bell muses about how all she’d wanted was “a normal childhood and normal parents,” then realized how “lucky” she’d been to know her mother once her mother was dying.
“People often ask me if she was a good mum. It’s hard to know what to say,” Bell says. So she thinks of what her mother might have said instead: “A good mum? … How mundane.”