The Georgia Straight
Poly Styrene doc reveals rocker’s vulnerability
Before I watched the new documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, I had no idea who Poly Styrene was. I vaguely remember hearing about a late-’70s punk band called X-Ray Spex and their quirky single “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”, but I had no clue about the band’s extraordinarily unique singer. Now I’m a huge fan of Poly Styrene. The film, codirected by Styrene’s 39-yearold daughter, Celeste Bell, and Paul Sng, recalls the trials and tribulations of the woman born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, as seen through narrator Bell’s eyes. As a mixed-race female frontwoman in Britain, Styrene had to overcome rampant racism and bigotry while struggling with a mental illness that was originally misdiagnosed as schizophrenia before doctors determined that she suffered from acute bipolar disorder.
Viewing Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, it doesn’t take long to be won over by the rocker’s personality. In early interviews with British music journalists, Styrene, just out of her teens, comes off as childlike and sweet. As Bell explains on the phone from her home in Barcelona, Spain, that vulnerability was something she wanted to portray in the doc.
“My mom had a lot of vulnerability,” she says. “She was a very sensitive person, which I think is part and parcel of being a creative person. It enabled her to create wonderful music and write these brilliant songs, but of course it also opened her up to negative experiences.”
Although X-Ray Spex only released one album during the punk era, 1978’s Germfree Adolescents, the band made a big first impression with Styrene’s unusual look, which included an unorthodox fashion sense—pointy shoes, granny cardigans, Day-Glo jewellery, military helmets—and dental braces. Her provocative songs about consumerism and identity politics also caught people’s attention.
“I think it was my mother’s lyrics that really made X-Ray Spex stand out from the other bands,” Bell offers. “I don’t think there were many bands in the punk era that were writing in such an insightful way as my mother was. It was quite unusual.”
As well as showing her retracing her mother’s steps by visiting various venues and locations, Bell’s documentary—which she cowrote with Zoë Howe—takes advantage of the abundance of archival footage of her mom that was available.
“It was a short-lived band,” Bell notes, “but they definitely seemed to capture interest very early on. There was always a lot of media attention on X-Ray Spex, but in particular on my mom.”
At one point in I Am a Cliché, a clip is shown from a Top of the Pops Top 30 chart countdown, with X-Ray Spex coming in at 23, ahead of bands like Wings, Squeeze, and Suzi Quatro. But although they enjoyed a fair amount of notoriety, especially in their native England, X-Ray Spex never thrived financially.
“It was a very bad time for artists in terms of the contracts they were getting,” Bell explains. “They were young kids, basically, with no knowledge of the music industry or how it works, and they signed these contracts that gave them a pittance.”
Things were looking up for X-Ray Spex’s chances of making it big when they travelled to New York City to play the famed punk club CBGB, but as the film artfully depicts, the trip spawned negative consequences, most involving Styrene’s mental state. The band’s time in New York did wind up delivering one joyous moment for Sonic Youth guitarist-vocalist Thurston Moore, though, who recalls in the film how Styrene handed him the microphone at CBGB so he could holler the “up yours” part during “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”
“It was like I was being knighted,” raves Moore, who was interviewed for the film along with the likes of singer-songwriter Neneh Cherry, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, and Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill.
The story of Poly Styrene’s life—and, by extension, her daughter’s—is downbeat at times. But there are also uplifting moments in the film, particularly during Bell’s beautifully shot journey to India to spread her mother’s ashes. As the doc winds down, Bell explains how her mom—who died from metastatic breast cancer in 2011 at the age of 53—always told her that she shouldn’t cry when people die because death is a beginning, not an end.
Earlier in the film, Bell is heard saying that she thought her mom was trying to carve out a name for herself as Poly Styrene. So does she think she accomplished that goal?
“Well, maybe not for herself, necessarily. What she did was she carved out a place for a lot of other people later on—especially women in music and women of colour in rock music, specifically.
“What my mother did will live on, and she had to go through some tough times for that to happen, but everything that she did was worthwhile—not just for herself but everyone else.”