Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire
Available to watch via Modern Films from March 5th.
Directed by Paul Sng & Celeste Bell
Narrated by Ruth Negga
This documentary tells the life story of the frontwoman of the short-lived 1970s punk band X-Ray Spex through the eyes of her daughter, Celeste. Poly Styrene, otherwise known as Marianne Joan Elliott Said was born in Bromley, Kent in 1957 and died in 2011. This beautifully shot labour of love brings us across not unfamiliar terrain – the singer who rebels against the restrictions of their poor background, bi-racial, brim-full of creative energy, shining brightly and with much acclaimed, yet somehow it all goes wrong. There have been many of this ilk, Amy (2015), recently Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away (2020) and of course the airwaves is currently dominated by Framing Britney Spears (2021).
In some respects, only the fashion and the music changes and they are all variations (with added documentary footage) of Judy Garland’s A Star is Born (1954) or I Could Go On Singing (1963) where, as with some signing Diana Princess of Wales or Meghan Markle they are ‘stretched too much and everyone wants a bite’. Even if one has not heard of the subject of this film, it is still a joy to watch in spite of the sense of foreboding unfolding in the wings. Poly Styrene is lovable, never angry, creative, bubbly and talented – her critique of the plastic society seeming prescient. Her concerns are our concerns and this gives the film an added resonance. Her time is now it would seem and it is tempting to suppose that her awareness of these issues, together with the film, could help re-affirm her importance and legacy for wider society. She saw the mess coming!
As in the best of this genre, the film benefits from a wealth of wonderful documentary footage, seaside England, National Front marches and counter-protests, to sleazy clubs in 1970s London and New York – capturing, although not fashionable to say so, the shabby down-at-heel chaos of London in those pre-Thatcher years. The ROXY on Neal Street seems a far cry from the world of low-fat, almond milk, macchiato dominating the neighbourhood today. As noted the film is a personal labour of love, Poly was survived by her daughter Celeste Bell and while this gives us added insight and empathy there are occasions we could benefit from some critical distancing. There is perhaps too much reiteration of the same point, an over-use of similar footage and some narrative inconsistencies. It is also somewhat uneven, with a measured and rich first half bursting with energy, and then something of a blur for nearly twenty years – which sadly probably reflects the reality of the singer’s life. But the narrative is always heartfelt, the footage is wonderful, the new camerawork is evocative and elegant – it makes me want to visit Hastings, which is saying something, and not for the first time we can be inspired by creative genius and wonder at the insightful edginess of others.