Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021) - 8/10
Updated: Apr 25
I’m reasonably clued up when it comes to the origins of punk. I know Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex, but only really as fronting a great band. This goes deeper, her story told by Celeste Bell, her daughter. It’s very personal with Bell narrating, slowly going through Poly’s belongings and history, an impressive archive of her life. Marion Elliot. Brixton. Late 70s. Mixed race, confused in a volatile society fuelled by hatred and the NF. She was a fighter. Proud, defiant, but still with a youthful fragility. If punk was about anything, it was taking a stand and claiming an identity and Poly managed that brilliantly in what’s still a almost exclusively male world. Poly was more punk than most, she was clearly having a blast, but it still meant something. A pure DIY ethic. Home made clothes, hand drawn album art. Certainly more punk than half the hangers on that the scene created. It’s mostly made up of photos, old footage, lyrics on scraps of paper, all with the occasional respite of Bell looking wistfully over books, trying on clothes, visiting locations that tie the narrative together. There’s plenty of music, live clips, easily proving her punk icon status and a roll call of names all singing her praises, Kathleen Hanna, Don Letts, John Cooper Clark, Pauline Black, band members and family. These voices together with Poly (Ruth Negga bringing Poly to life via her diaries) and Celeste make up the backbone and give it a real honesty and authenticity. Sadly it’s not in any way as original as Poly, but it’s enjoyable and informative. Much in the same way White Riot is about the Rock Against Racism gig that X-Ray Spex played. Poly’s story is interesting, both from the band perspective, the music and the person. The vacuousness of fame, fake and plastic, ultimately finding weaknesses that would haunt her. It takes a toll. Thought that she went mad. Diagnosed with schizophrenia instead of bipolar, aged 21. She wound up in a psyche ward, tranquillised. It’s really sad, not only for Poly, but for Celeste recounting the feelings of her 4 year old self. Forced to walk away for herself after just 1 record. She recognised what she needed to do to survive. Continuing to write, there was a solo album that didn’t do well and Poly was dropped by EMI. A career over, married with a child at 24, looking for an anchor and finding one with the Hare Krishna via a trip to India. An about turn perhaps, but one that worked for a time. There’s not much music left behind, but this proves there was a life fully lead. Thrown a myriad of obstacles from that formative racism to the cancer that took her. Remarkable woman.