Poly Styrene doesn’t do much formally, but its personal stakes and unflinching candor still manage to resonate.
Making a documentary about any icon is a serious undertaking, so much so that there is maybe only one way it could be even more artistically intimidating: when said icon is also your parent. Co-directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell take on the challenge in Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, a documentary about the life of Bell’s late mother, Poly Styrene (born Marianne Elliott-Said), the lead singer of punk band X-Ray Spex. With Bell serving as narrator, the film follows its subject from her childhood, throughout the various stages of her career, and eventually to her demise in 2015, giving particular spotlight to the later stages of her life and work.
By all accounts, I Am A Cliché spends most of its runtime occupying the middle of the road. Bell and Sng rely heavily on the former’s voiceover narration and much of the film’s archive footage is simply recycled from Ted Clisby’s earlier, contemporary documentary, Who Is Poly Styrene? Although Ruth Negga intrigues as the voice of Poly Styrene, reading excerpts from the singer’s writing, it’s not enough to truly refresh the film’s staler aspects. Even the film’s few insights into the ‘70s punk scene, in particular the mixed racial politics and the childishly cruel hazing antics of the Sex Pistols, feel like a footnote, interesting bits of trivia rather than anything Bell and Sng might want to delve further into.
But despite the film’s relative mediocrity in terms of form, there is one element that truly stuns: co-director Celeste Bell and her unflinching candor regarding her mother. The film is structured around Bell’s changing perspectives of her mother, from chaotic and often negligent parent to artistic collaborator, and the honesty with which Bell explores the transition is remarkable. She refuses to sugar-coat this relationship, describing specific incidents of violence and the details of an erratic upbringing when her mother decided to uproot her infant daughter to join the Hare Krishnas. Bell’s accounts are the sort that other documentaries of this ilk might skate over in an attempt not to speak ill of the dead, but Bell’s genuine pride in her mother and her legacy balances the film perfectly, resulting in a brave piece of personal, somewhat diaristic filmmaking. So while the film’s form pales in comparison to its emotionalism, there’s at least one benefit — there’s nothing to distract from the film’s final act, which shifts from Poly Styrene’s life to her legacy, and marks a shift from her voice to her daughter’s. As such, I Am A Cliché manages to hold true to its overlapping perceptions of its subject, maintaining a well-balanced tension between the two that makes for fascinating viewing.
Published as part of Before We Vanish — February 2022.