You read that right – the title of this film insists that Poly Styrene is a cliché. While the cheeky name reflects the punk icon’s self-reflexive wit, this doc reveals that she was anything but forumlaic. The frontwoman of the legendary British punk band X-Ray Spex gets her due in this intimate portrait co-directed by her daughter, Celeste Bell.
Marianne Elliott-Said, a.k.a. Poly Styrene, had a sparkling personality, a tumultuous life, and a fabulous career. While it’s natural to approach celebrity profile docs with a critical lens when they’re made by the famous subject’s relative, this film is well-served by having Bell as a narrator. It conjures the feeling of sitting down to flip through family photo albums and listen to stories in a friend’s living room.
It’s an ode to Bell’s mother that doesn’t gloss over the less marketable moments of her life. As she had a sporadic career, it also helps to have someone close to the source who can fill in the gaps along the way. Bell’s nuanced tribute to her mother leaves one with a strong impression of the woman behind Poly Styrene in all of her complexities.
The film is guided by Elliott-Said’s diary entries and poems, voiced by Ruth Negga. Plenty of other celebs pop up in the narration to speak to the trails she blazed in the punk and new wave circles, bursting onto the scene with X-Ray Spex in the mid-late 1970s. In the short stint before the band fizzled out, she made enough waves to influence the likes of Kathleen Hanna, The Raincoats, and others. She was the original Riot Grrrl.
While X-Ray Spex have a hallowed place in British punk history, the film shows how Elliott-Said’s life was much more than her stint as Poly Styrene. She grappled with the subject matter in her songs – her biracial identity, consumerism, and our increasingly plastic, artificial world – far beyond the confines of her music.
Although the persona of Poly Styrene played with the idea of plastic, she didn’t fit the mould of a Barbie. The film goes into saddening depth about her experiences growing up as a half-Somalian, half-white girl in post-war England. She rocked braces and grimaced her way through endless interview questions and comments about them, as well as not-so-subtle digs at her weight or funky style. While Elliott-Said made waves, the film makes sure to include the oceans of bullshit she had to wade through as a Black woman in a punk band.
One of the most gut-wrenching moments in the film is a full-circle story with a sour twist. In the beginning of the doc, it’s noted that Elliott-Said was first inspired by seeing the Sex Pistols perform. When she’s finally made it big in the London punk world and encounters Sid Vicious at a party, he locks her in a cupboard for an hour as a ‘joke’.
While X-Ray Spex were on the fast-track to fame, incidents like this piled up and Elliott-Said reached a breaking point. Bell recounts how her mother had a breakdown and was placed in a psychiatric ward and misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, derailing her career with the band for a few decades.
Bell doesn’t shy away from delving into her mother’s bipolar disorder and how it affected their relationship. A large part of her childhood also involved the Hare Krishna movement, which Elliott-Said adopted after a trip to India. She brought Bell, a toddler, with her when she moved into the nearest Hare Krishna temple. It was a rocky period where Elliott-Said continued to struggle with her mental health and Bell ended up living with her grandmother.
Just when the mother-daughter pair were mending their relationship and Poly Styrene was making a comeback, Elliott-Said was diagnosed with breast cancer and died. As a result, the film is more of a eulogy than a cut-and-dried music doc, and it’s better off that way. The film is as much about Elliott-Said as it is for her.
Bell honours her mother as she journeys to come to terms with her untimely death and their often troubled relationship. The doc is a little bloated with shots of Bell walking around, retracing her mother’s steps through locations as they arise in the film’s narration. But this clearly asserts Bell as the teller of her mother’s story, a responsibility she takes seriously and does justice. Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché sees Bell put together the pieces of her mother’s life for the fans, but more importantly, for herself.
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché screened at Hot Docs 2021 and is playing at DOXA 2021 with a special screening at the PNE Amphitheatre in Vancouver on Saturday as a part of the DOXA Drive-in.