Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché
"With a focus throughout on Poly's achievements as a writer, the film makes room for her to speak for herself as much as possible: to be heard, not just seen." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

At the height of punk in the late Seventies, Poly Styrene stood out as a true individual. Whether fronting X-Ray Spex or performing solo, she had a style all her own and seemingly boundless energy, commanding audience attention with ease. Behind the striking stage gear and formidable vocals, however, was a powerful intellect, and a lot less attention has been paid to that. Celeste Bell and Paul Sng's documentary aims to put that right, to paint a more complete portrait of this complicated individual.

Central to the quest is Bell herself - Poly's daughter, who grew up with someone very different from the public image and has spent a lifetime trying to reconcile the two. though its is in essence a chronological journey through Poly's life, the film constantly intercuts between these two aspects of identity, exploring, in the process, who she was as a creative artist. It also explores the sense of division and inability to fit in that comes from growing up as a mixed race person in a country like the UK, and the difficulty of being a woman in an industry centred on white men. One poignant illustration of this concerns a party at the home of Johnny Rotten, whom Poly had a crush on at the time, where everybody ignored her until at some point she had had enough and went into the bathroom and cut off all her hair.

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There are a lot of anecdotes here, often supported in part by archive footage. A surprising amount of amateur video survives from the Eighties, when Poly was in the process of reinventing herself, and this is accompanied by gig footage and material from assorted TV footage. Poly's frankness makes her very sympathetic even when still a teenager and very naïve. In a world full of middle class kids pretending to be dangerous for money, she was the real thing, putting her real self out there. Bell reflects with some sadness on how she said that she had the fame but not the money, the worst of both worlds - people would follow her everywhere, even breaking into her house, and she had no means whereby to shield herself.

The film is bold in its exploration of mental illness, looking at the damage done by misdiagnosis and acknowledging Poly's manic depression as an aspect of her character which was ultimately best managed by adjusting her lifestyle, allowing her to balance the support she needed with continuing access to her creative energy. It looks at the spiritual community where she found this and challenges the one size fits all approach that pushes mentally ill artists towards social conformity. Bell's own reflections on growing up in a Hare Krishna community add depth to this. The latter part of the film, which deals with the relationship - both personal and creative - which they built as adults, adds real warmth to what could all too easily have been presented as a tragic story.

With a focus throughout on Poly's achievements as a writer, the film makes room for her to speak for herself as much as possible: to be heard, not just seen. In doing so, it breaks the boundaries of the conventional punk documentary and becomes something far more interesting. Few female artists receive this kind of treatment. It's a refreshing and continually engaging piece of work.

Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2021
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A documentary about the punk legend.
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Director: Celeste Bell, Paul Sng

Writer: Celeste Bell, Zoe Howe

Starring: Poly Styrene, Celeste Bell

Year: 2021

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: UK

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