Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché documentary review: a howl out of the past for today

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: A loving appreciation, but never a blinkered one, of the punk philosopher, a woman ahead of her time and still timely: iconoclastic, creative, ever-searching, a cultural observer who saw deep and far.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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You don’t need to be a fan of punk-rock icon Poly Styrene to get a lot out of Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché. (Indeed, I knew little about her beyond her name.) Because — spoiler alert! — she was not a cliché. She was, we see in this sensitive tribute, a woman way ahead of her time, and still timely a decade after her death; she died in 2011, and too young, aged only 53. She was iconoclastic, fiercely creative, ever-searching, a cultural observer who saw deep and far. She was a philosopher made for punk, and it for her, much more so than the “white middle-class men” (as someone says here) who dominated the music and the subculture.

I say “woman,” but Marianne Joan Elliott-Said was still a teenager when she invented her alter ego of “Poly Styrene” and put together the band X-Ray Spex; she wrote their songs, and sang them, and created all the band’s art. She was the first woman of color — her mother was a white Brit, her father a Somali immigrant — in the UK to front a successful rock band, and she came of rage along with London’s punk scene in the 1970s. Punk is about disaffection, and she didn’t merely understand that, she lived it. Punk and Poly were made for each other.

Poly Styrene I Am a Cliché
Poly worried about her image. (Even punk had expectations for women.)

But this is not an angry film. It’s a pensive one, a story about a woman with outsized cultural impact told from a deeply personal perspective: that of her daughter, Celeste Bell. (Bell directed and cowrote the film with Paul Sng, with additional writing by Zoe Howe; the film is based in part on the Bell & Howe book Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story. In December it won the 2021 British Independent Film Award for Best Documentary.) As much as this is a loving appreciation, it is never a blinkered one, and it is very much about Bell coming to terms with the creative chaos of her mother’s life, how that impacted Bell as her only child, and what everything Poly Styrene was still means today.

Bell is excruciatingly clear to separate “Poly Styrene” from Marianne Joan Elliott-Said… and also to note where the artist and the alter ego overlapped. (Some of the narration is by Ruth Negga [Passing, Warcraft], striking and low-key shocking as Poly’s perceptive voice, dramatizing her diaries, poems, interviews, and other archival material.) Because that’s the thing about women, isn’t it? Even if we’re not artists or creative or famous or anything “special,” we have public faces and private faces, characters we play for society and the people we really are. (Yes, men, even nonfamous men, have public faces and private faces, too, but almost literally all of cinema is already about this.)

Among the many ways that Poly Styrene was ahead of her time was in being famous but having no money (and hence none of the protection from fame that money affords), as is true for so many in our social-media era. Her entire persona was about pushing back against and making fun of the fakeness, the disposability of rock stars, which seems even more apropos in our age of careful curation of image. She railed against rampant consumerism and the perversity of capitalism, which has only gotten more entrenched since the punk era. Everything Poly Styrene was turns out to be a howl from the past to a future — a now — that doesn’t even realize how dystopian it is.

Poly Styrene I Am a Cliché Celeste Bell
Bell (left) with her mother, not long before Elliot-Said’s death.

But… as tempting as it is to say that all the shit she observed and commented on has not improved, and that some of it has gotten worse, since her heyday — and that is true — it’s also true that some of it, maybe, is ever so slightly better. Yes, the vintage footage of antiracism protests from back in the day do look awfully familiar, but perhaps there is more awareness of, and more reckoning with, racism and colonialism now. Maybe?

If so, then perhaps something Elliott-Said’s sister says here rings with deeper resonance: “Everything about her was inspirational.” Maybe she changed a few minds that got us to where we are now. Maybe she can still change a few more.

more films like this:
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV]
The Punk Singer [Prime US | Apple TV]

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