Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché

In 1976, Marion Elliott-Said – a Somali-English teenager from London – formed a band.  That band, called X-Ray Spex, would quickly become one of the most distinct groups to emerge from the fledgling punk scene.  Marion, in her front-woman persona as Poly Styrene, broke into an industry that was overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, paving the way for other female musicians and women of colour.  Many credit her with laying the foundations for what would, a decade and a half later, become the riot grrrl movement.

Narrated by Marion’s daughter, Celeste Bell, who co-directed the film with Paul Sng and wrote the script with Sng and Zoe Howe, Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché is an ambitious documentary that follows Bell as she wades through her mother’s archives following Marion’s death in 2011. 

As a long-time fan of Styrene and X-Ray Spex, the first thing I had to come to terms with when I watched Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché is that it is not really about Poly Styrene at all.  This is not your typical biography or straight-forward, expositional music doc.  Instead, it is a film about a daughter’s grief and her struggle to understand her mother, or at least to come to terms with her.  Combining archival video footage, photographs, and audio interviews with family members, friends, and former band mates, the film attempts to merge Poly Styrene’s musical legacy with the far less glamourous reality of her life after the band, as she struggled to raise her daughter alone and cope with bipolar disorder. 

Also included are excerpts from Marion’s diary, as well as poetry and song lyrics.  These are read by Ruth Negga (LovingAd AstraPassing) who brings tenderness and raw emotion to Marion’s words. 

Near the beginning of the documentary, Bell reflects on her mother’s funeral, noting how many strangers turned up to mourn a punk icon that she did not associate with the woman who raised her.  While Bell’s perspective is interesting, the film feels less like it was made for an audience, and more like a personal project of familial excavation.  Though Bell claims to have made peace with her mother and her memory, she seems to hold Marion’s years as the front woman of X-Ray Spex at an arm’s length.  Her narration is often overly detached and analytical, especially while discussing the band.  Perhaps that’s to be expected.  This is her story, after all, and, as she reminds us frequently throughout, she was not born until well after her mother walked away from the spotlight. 

Still, the documentary spends more than half its runtime on Marion/Poly’s childhood and time with X-Ray Spex, offering a comparatively speedy zip through Bell’s own life and upbringing.  As such, Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché does not commit completely to being an intimate portrait of a strained mother-daughter relationship, nor does it satisfy as a celebration of one of the most complex and ground-breaking women in punk.


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