A decade on from her death and Poly Styrene remains one of the most thrilling musicians to have ever shot out of the UK. As the singer and founder of X Ray Spex, she was a punk trailblazer; a Black woman of British/Somali heritage who sang about consumerism and identity politics, while the likes of the Sid Vicious were busy sporting Swastikas and flirting with fascist imagery.
A self-confessed piss-take of a pop star – she lifted her stage name from the Yellow Pages – Poly’s approach to performance was above all fun; instead of the punk uniform of ripped shirts and tartan trousers, she did her own thing, wearing neon bright twin sets and pearls and making her own clothes which she sold on a Kings Road market stall.
Yet despite her status as an innovator and a true original, there’s a deep sadness that runs through I Am A Cliché, which tells the story of her struggle not just within the music industry, but with life itself.
Narrated, written and directed by her daughter, Celeste Bell, the film digs through Poly’s archive, as Irish actor Ruth Negga reads the singer’s poetry and diary entries, including giddy memories of seeing the Sex Pistols play on Hastings’ Pier on her 19th birthday, but also of terrifying run-ins with the National Front and the playground bullying Poly – born Marianne Elliott – experienced.
Lead singer of two-tone ska band The Bodysnatchers, Rhoda Dakar – who features in the film alongside Pauline Black, Kathleen Hanna and Neneh Cherry – explains the appeal of punk to mixed race Brits, who felt they didn’t fit into either the white or black communities of the 1970s. “We were embraced by punk because it was full of people that nobody else wanted,” says Dakar. “We were welcome because we were already outsiders.”
Poly’s outsider status would be pushed to breaking point in the music industry, where comments about the way she looked – which stood in glorious contrast to the glossy pop princesses of ABBA or winsome, hippyish image of Joni Mitchell – would knock her self confidence. X Ray Spex’s anthem ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!’ kicked against the mediocrity of the mainstream, but a world unwilling to accept difference, as well as Poly’s own mental health issues, meant her music career would be short lived.
The band split at the height of their success after Poly was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia in her early twenties. Her actual condition – acute bipolar disorder – wouldn’t be identified until much later, but hospitalisation, medication, motherhood and a badly received solo album saw Poly spiralling. “Poly Styrene had to die so Marianne Elliott could survive,” explains Bell, whose mother abandoned music to join the Hare Krishna movement. In devastating detail the film recounts how Poly would end up losing custody of Bell, who went to live with her grandmother, though the pair would reunite and collaborate on Poly Styrene’s comeback album, ‘Generation Indigo’, released in 2011, just before her death at the age of 53 from cancer.
While walking down Hastings Pier, Celeste Bell muses on a question she’s often asked. “My mother was a punk rock icon,” she states. “People often ask me if she was a good mum – it’s hard to know what to say…” In I Am A Cliché there’s no such uncertainty – it’s a perfect tribute to a complex, brilliant, groundbreaking woman.
- Directors: Celeste Bell, Paul Sng
- Starring: Poly Styrene, Kathleen Hanna, Neneh Cherry
- Release date: March 5 (UK virtual cinema release)