“My mother was a punk rock icon,” Celeste Bell intones offscreen as her mum watches herself on a wall of televisions in the first few seconds of her unique and affecting new documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché.
That mother? Poly Styrene, crucial Seventies Britpunk X-Ray Spex’s leader. They splashed neon day-glo colors atop punk’s black palette, rejecting its nihilism for a vicious satire of consumerism. They grafted bleating saxophone atop the usual Sex Pistols-inspired power chords. Classics like “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” were punk Roxy Music, minus Brian Eno’s arty distance and Bryan Ferry’s arch lounge-lizard persona. Styrene shattered both her mixed race origins and the beauty process, flaunting her dental braces and hiding her voluptuousness in shapeless fashions of her own creation, 40 years before Billie Eilish.
“All these people I’d never met, people who came to say goodbye to Poly Styrene, this famous person,” Bell scoffs seconds later, recounting her mother’s 2011 funeral. (She died of metastatic breast cancer that April 25, age 53.) “Someone so far removed from the mother I knew.” I Am a Cliché is Bell discovering the person who was both her mum, Marianne Elliott, and Poly Styrene, punk icon.
She examines this complex woman through vintage footage, onscreen excavations of the extensive archive she unwittingly inherited, and travels to Styrene’s life’s locations. What you won’t see is a single talking head, except Styrene in ancient TV interviews. Bell appears wordlessly onscreen, her disembodied voice narrating. The drama’s players – such as Bell’s father Adrian, X-Ray Spex bassist Paul Dean, and Styrene’s sister Margaret Emmons – similarly speak off-camera. So do such punk luminaries as filmmaker Don Letts, journalists Vivien Goldman and John Robb, and musicians Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre). Styrene herself speaks through Preacher/Loving actress Ruth Negga’s in-character readings from her diaries. What emerges? The music biz machinery ground down this visionary artist, leaving a mentally ill core seeking redemption via Hare Krishna. Bell extricated herself at a young age to live with her grandmother, as Styrene often neglected her child while attempting to center herself. They later reconciled, working together on Styrene’s final solo record. Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is the daughter cinematically coming to terms with their complicated relationship and with a figure who changed our culture.
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