At the beginning of the documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, Celeste Bell, the daughter of former X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene, says: “My mother was a punk rock icon. People often asked me if she was a good mum. 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 a young woman who faced personal difficulties that affected her life as well as her daughter’s.
The story of Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (which is currently streaming in the U.K. and is scheduled to be screened at U.S. venues starting this February) is driven by Bell reexamining Styrene’s life following the singer’s death in 2011 at the age of 53 from cancer. Through archival footage, commentary from Styrene’s peers and admirers–including former X-Ray Spex members Paul Dean and Lora Logic; the Raincoats’ Gina Birch and Ana Da Sliva; musician Thurston Moore; singer Neneh Cherry; deejay/filmmaker Don Letts; and journalist Vivien Goldman–and her own personal memories, Bell attempts to understand her mother as a groundbreaking musician and parent (Oscar-nominated actress Ruth Negga provides the voice of Styrene in narrating the singer’s diary entries).
As recounted in the movie, the singer, who was born Marian Joan Elliott-Said, had a difficult upbringing, Growing up in Brixton, young Marian, who was of British and Somali background, experienced racism amid a hostile environment and questioned her own identity, which she addressed in a poem she wrote titled “Half Caste.” Being an outsider in that sense made Marian a natural fit for the British punk rock movement and led to her to become Poly Styrene and form X-Ray Spex in 1976.
With her memorable clarion singing and striking stage appearance (including outrageous outfits and braces on her teeth), Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex achieved a period of fame—highlighted by their now-classic album Germfree Adolescents and an appearance on the popular British music television show Top of the Pops.
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The group solidified their place in punk rock history with their rip-roaring signature song “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”, which has been viewed as a feminist anthem with its famous opening lyric: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard.” In addition to the theme of identity, the charismatic Styrene tackled other subjects in her songwriting that seems quite prescient now about society, such as genetic engineering and consumerism run amok. Along with groundbreaking punk acts such as the Raincoats and the Slits, Styrene—as a woman of color in the white, male-dominated world of rock—paved the road for future female rockers.
But despite her popularity as a punk rock star, Styrene was struggling on the inside and felt insecure. Dealing with pressures of success and mental health issues, Styrene was hospitalized and mistakenly diagnosed as schizophrenic. She left X-Ray Spex at the height of their peak in 1979, recorded a solo album, Translucence, that didn’t burn up the charts, and then joined the Hare Krishna movement. But as she was seeking spirituality as a member of the Hare Krishnas, Styrene was still experiencing traumatic and mental health problems that also took a 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, leading to a period of estrangement between mother and daughter. “Creative people don’t always make the best parents. And she certainly neglected my needs at times,” Bell would later say.
There is a somewhat happy, if bittersweet, ending to the Poly Styrene story, as the singer and her daughter eventually reconciled and became close. Before her death, Styrene made a comeback by playing with X-Ray Spex at London’s The Roundhouse in 2008. She also recorded what would be her final solo album, 2011’s Generation Indigo. Bell later penned a 2019 book about her mother’s life, Dayglo, with Zoë Howe, who also co-wrote the film.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché reaffirms Styrene’s legacy as a groundbreaking artist in rock. It also bucks music documentary conventions in which the bigger story is not entirely centered on the music, band drama or glamorous rock star excess, but about a unique and complicated mother-daughter relationship. Bell’s literal journey to understand Styrene both as the rocker and flawed parent is quite powerful–even heartbreaking at times.
Styrene and X-Ray Spex may have never achieved greater popularity and commercial success due to their premature breakup, but they blazed a trail for female rockers and women-fronted bands. “I decided I would make sure my mother’s artistic legacy was given the recognition she deserves,” Bell said in a director’s statement about the film, and the resulting work certainly fulfilled that goal and more. Hopefully, it will introduce Styrene to a new generation of rebels.
For information on the upcoming U.S. screenings of ‘Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché,’ co-directed by Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, click here.