SXSW Interview: Celeste Bell Finds Her Mother Again in Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

Life after the germ-free adolescence

Celeste Bell in Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

X-Ray Spex singer and punk maverick Poly Styrene (born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) intended to publish a book of diary entries in her final years. Following her death from cancer in 2011, daughter Celeste Bell inherited management of her mother's pioneering legacy, leading to the 2019 coffeetable read Dayglo!: The Poly Styrene Story.

The artwork, writings, and family ties now coalesce in Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, debuting stateside at South by Southwest.

Co-directed with Paul Sng and co-written with music biographer Zoë Howe, the documentary focuses on Styrene's life offstage.

"It was really important to me to get this whole other side to her out there," explains Bell. "We focused on what was happening in the world, socially, and the relationship between me and my mother. Those were more important than the ins and outs of making music, because she was very spontaneous. She wrote songs in her head while walking around the supermarket."

Styrene's predictions on society's increasingly synthetic nature drive both her artistic brilliance and mental anguish throughout the film. Spiritual searching leads the songwriter to George Harrison's Hare Krishna commune, where Bell spent her younger years.

"My mum believed she was psychic," says the latter. "I was very skeptical, but I've softened to the idea. She was able to see, in the Seventies, the way society was heading in a way even academics weren't. It was uncanny."

Interviewing members of the Raincoats and author Vivien Goldman, the documentary fuels renewed recognition of women in London's first-wave punk scene. The film also aligns with current reckonings of the media attacking young female artists, complete with patronizing TV interviews and a head-shaving scene. Styrene's story is a perfect punk antidote to the much-hyped Britney Spears doc.

"Like Britney, like Amy [Winehouse], my mum was very young," adds Bell. "These experiences with fame and intense scrutiny and pressure can harm your development from adolescent to adult. That huge psychological impact manifests in mental illness in many, many artists."

Meeting with a manager of Winehouse deterred Bell from such a path.

"He was saying that he got Amy when she was 16 or 17, so that at 22, it was really too old to be thinking about a career in music," she recalls. "That really put me off. I decided if I did make music, it would be just for fun."

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

24 Beats

World Premiere
SXSW panel: Tuesday, March 16, 8:30-9pm

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