Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, Poly Styrene picked her stage name out of the phone book because she wanted something that sounded plastic. This was Britain in the 1970s, and the cultural landscape was changing. Punk music was taking the scene by storm. It spoke to the disenfranchised and welcomed a generation of outcasts and misfits. Born to a Scottish-Irish mother and a Somali father, Styrene was called “half-caste” by other kids. “When you’re called half-Black or half-white, you never feel full,” Styrene said years later. So, she created a space for herself in punk and found success. With her braces shining and her brightly colored outfits, Styrene bounced around the stage to “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” a politically charged anthem that garnered attention because many thought the song had something to do with sex.
Daughter Celeste Bell recounts her mother’s life in the new documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, currently playing the SXSW Film Festival. Directed by Bell and Paul Sng, I Am a Cliché follows Bell as she chronicles her mother’s life through archival footage, interviews, and narrations from Styrene’s diary courtesy of Ruth Negga. Throughout the doc, Bell retraces her mother’s journey from England to New York to India in hopes of better understanding her mother. And with the exception of Time Square, these scenes are almost entirely depopulated and give the doc a spooky sense of isolation. Fitting considering what we learn about Styrene as the story unfolds.
I Am a Cliché is Styrene and Bell’s story, but their two threads never quite intertwine. That might be by design. It’s hard to understand someone else, even if it is your own mother. Still, the doc makes a convincing case for Styrene and the X-Ray Spex as one of the seminal punk bands. Punk may have promised more than it delivered, but Styrene found a way to make it work for her.
Header photo courtesy Fabrizio Rainone.