Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (4 stars)

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

Poly Styrene's daughter Celeste Bell is behind this illuminating and painfully personal film about her mum

A host of iconic contributors – Kathleen Hanna, Neneh Cherry, Vivienne Westwood, Thurston Moore – line up to pay tribute to the legend that was Poly Styrene, the frontwoman of punk rockers X-Ray Spex, who died in 2011. But what makes I Am a Cliché so unique is that it's made by the singer's daughter, Celeste Bell, the 'caretaker of Poly Styrene's legacy'. Bell charts her journey piecing together the puzzle of her mother, reflecting on their time together, and learning to accept and forgive her in a crowdfunded film co-directed by Paul Sng and co-written by Zoë Howe.

The documentary that unfolds manages to be both frank and desperately delicate, rather like its subject, as it gives us an intimate look at Poly Styrene's life. With Ruth Negga reading from the singer's diary in character, there's rare insight into her thinking, while family members, X-Ray Spex bandmates, writers and musical peers give us the context behind her rise, as a mixed-race, working class woman in a white, male often middle-class music scene. Their audio contributions play over footage of the time in question, keeping us visually immersed in her world.

Assembling a lively and diverting patchwork of archive material, the film captures how Poly Styrene (born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957) was a glorious mess of contradictions, and a distinct and endearing personality amongst an often spiky collection of characters. It details the racism and exclusion Poly experienced growing up in 60s Brixton with a white mum and a Black, Somalian dad, her struggles with identity (which would inform one of her most famous songs, literally called 'Identity'), and the way she was held up by feminists (particularly after she released anthem 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!') and simultaneously rejected such labels.

The film also explores Poly's love of fashion, which existed alongside a growing hatred and suspicion of consumerism. We see the sexism and insensitivity she faced: watching her being patronised by male interviewers, who evidently don't get her, and prominent male figures from the time (including Don Letts and bandmate Paul Dean) express regret at their own role in her mistreatment. While Poly's rejection of fame and struggles with mental illness are sympathetically depicted.

The almost-heavenly glow and pin-sharp presentation of the modern-day footage of Celeste and her discoveries is satisfyingly contrasted with the grainy archive footage of her mother, whom she heavily resembles, perhaps to indicate the clarity and peace Celeste has found. The filmmaker's courage in confronting a sometimes chaotic and traumatic childhood and the love she has for her mum, makes this a beautiful, insightful and unusually compassionate look at a key figure of the punk scene.

Available to watch on demand from Fri 5 Mar.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • UK
  • 1h 29min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Celeste Bell, Paul Sng
  • Written by: Celeste Bell, Zoe Howe, Paul Sng
  • Cast: Kathleen Hanna, Poly Styrene, Don Letts
  • UK release: 27 February 2021