Hot Docs review: Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché

A look back at the life of a Black feminist punk icon by her own daughter, this film is more personal and mournful than your usual biographical music doc


POLY STYRENE: I AM A CLICHÉ (Paul Sng, Celeste Bell, UK). 96 minutes. Rating: NNNN


Poly Styrene was one of the most unique singers in punk and new wave history. Powerful and subversive, charismatic and stylish, a young biracial singer in a scene dominated by spiky-haired white men – she was anything but a cliché. Watch any of her performances with her saxophone-spiked band X-Ray Spex from their late-70s run and your eyes will be glued to the screen. 

With that kind of footage to draw from, it would be easy to focus on that undeniable stage power and celebrate Styrene’s influence as a Black feminist punk icon. That’s definitely in this doc – including commentary from icons like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Neneh Cherry and Vivienne Westwood – but the tone is more lyrical, contemplative, almost mournful. 

That’s because it’s co-directed and co-written by Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell. Tasked with “the burden of being the caretaker of my mum’s legacy,” she doesn’t approach it as an objective biographer, but rather the daughter of a musical genius who was also a very complicated human being. It’s packed with voice-overs, including actor Ruth Negga as Poly Styrene narrating in first-person from her journals, but the only face we see (other than the historical footage) is Bell’s own. 

The film is as much about Poly Styrene as it is about the woman behind her, Marianne Elliott-Said, including the years after her brief but fiery run with X-Ray Spex – from the chilly response to her quieter solo debut to her conversion to Hare Krishna; her mental health struggles (she was institutionalized and misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, when actually she had an acute case of bipolar disorder); her estrangement from her daughter and their eventual reunion; her return to the stage and untimely death from breast cancer. 

Bell doesn’t treat her mother as a perfect saint and delivers a deeply felt memorial in the process. 

Available April 29 at 10 am here.

Head here for the rest of NOW’s Hot Docs 2021 reviews.

@trapunski

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