At the start of the documentary Poly styrene: I’m a clichéCeleste Bell, daughter of former X-Ray singer Spex Poly Styrene, says, “My mom was a punk rock icon. People often asked me if she was a good mom. It’s hard to know what to say. Those words set the tone for the film, co-directed by Bell and Paul Sng, which is not so much about being a famous rock star, but rather about a young woman facing personal challenges that have affected her life as well as that of his daughter.
The story of Poly styrene: I’m a cliché (Who is currently airing in the UK and is slated to premiere in US theaters from February) is motivated by Bell’s reexamination of Styrene’s life following the singer’s death in 2011 at the age of 53 from the sequels of cancer. Through archival footage, commentary from peers and Styrene admirers, including former X-Ray Spex members Paul Dean and Lora Logic; Gina Birch and Ana Da Sliva of the raincoats; musician Thurston Moore; singer Neneh Cherry; DJ / director Don Letts; and journalist Vivien Goldman – and with her own personal recollections, Bell attempts to understand her mother as a musician and revolutionary parent (Oscar-nominated actress Ruth Negga provides the voice of Styrene in the narration of the singer’s diary entries).
As the film tells, the singer, born Marian Joan Elliott-Said, had a difficult upbringing, Growing up in Brixton, the young Marian, of British and Somali descent, was the victim of racism in a hostile environment and questioned her own identity, which she addressed in a poem she wrote called “Half Caste”. Being an outsider in this sense made Marian a natural fit for the British punk rock movement and led her to become Poly Styrene and form X-Ray Spex in 1976.
With her memorable bugle vocals and striking stage appearance (including outrageous outfits and braces on her teeth), Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex enjoyed a period of glory, highlighted by their now classic album. Germ-free teens and an appearance on the popular UK music television show The top of the pops.
The band cemented their place in punk rock history with their signature song “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”, Which was considered a feminist anthem with its famous opening lyrics: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. ”In addition to the theme of identity, the charismatic Styrene touched on other topics in her songwriting that now seem quite prescient about society, such as genetic engineering and rampant consumerism. With groundbreaking punk bands such as the Raincoats and the Slits, Styrene, as a woman of color in the male-dominated white rock world, paved the way for future rockers.
But despite her popularity as a punk rock star, Styrene struggled inside and felt insecure. Coping with the pressures of success and mental health issues, Styrene was hospitalized and wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic. She left X-Ray Spex at the height of their prime in 1979, recorded a solo album, Translucency, who didn’t burn the charts and then joined the Hare Krishna movement. But while she researched spirituality as a member of the Hare Krishnas, Styrene still suffered from traumatic and mental health issues that also took their toll on Bell, who was a child at the time. It all came to a head when the then young Bell left Styrene to live with her grandmother, resulting in a period of separation between mother and daughter. “Creative people don’t always make the best parents. And she certainly neglected my needs at times, ”Bell said later.
There is a somewhat happy, albeit bittersweet, ending to Poly Styrene’s story, as the singer and her daughter finally reconcile and become close. Before her death, Styrene made a comeback playing with X-Ray Spex at the Roundhouse in London in 2008. She also recorded what would be her last solo album, 2011. Indigo Generation. Bell went on to write a 2019 book about his mother’s life, Dayglo, with Zoë Howe, who also co-wrote the film.
Poly styrene: I’m a cliché reaffirms Styrene’s legacy as a revolutionary rock artist. It also flies in the face of musical documentary conventions in which the bigger story isn’t entirely about the music, the band’s drama, or the glamorous rock star excess, but a one-off mother-daughter relationship and complicated. Bell’s literal journey to understand Styrene as both a rocker and a flawed parent is quite powerful, if not heartbreaking at times.
Styrene and X-Ray Spex may never have achieved greater popularity and commercial success due to their untimely break-up, but they paved the way for rockers and female-led groups. “I decided that I would make sure that my mother’s artistic legacy received the recognition it deserves,” Bell said in a statement from the director about the film, and the work that resulted has certainly reached this goal and more. Hopefully this will introduce Styrene to a new generation of rebels.
For more information on the upcoming US screenings of “Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché”, co-directed by Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, click on here.