Styrofoam documentary explores the legacy of a pioneering punk rock legend

At the start of the documentary Poly Styrene: I’m a cliché, Celeste Bell, daughter of former X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene, says, “My mom was a punk rock icon. People often asked me if she was a good mom. It’s hard to know what to say. Those words set the tone for the film – co-directed by Bell and Paul Sng – which isn’t so much about being a famous rock star, but rather about a young woman who faced personal hardships that affected her life as well as that of her daughter.

The story of Poly Styrene: I’m a cliché (Who is currently streaming in the UK and is set to be shown in US theaters from February) is motivated by Bell re-examining Styrene’s life following the singer’s death in 2011 at the age of 53 from cancer. Through archival footage, commentary from Styrene’s peers and admirers, including former X-Ray Spex members Paul Dean and Lora Logic; Gina Birch and Ana Da Sliva of Raincoats; musician Thurston Moore; singer Neneh Cherry; DJ/filmmaker Don Letts; and journalist Vivien Goldman – and her own personal recollections, Bell attempts to understand her mother as a musician and revolutionary parent (Academy-nominated actress Ruth Negga provides Styrene’s voice as she narrates the singer’s diary entries).

As the film tells, the singer, born Marian Joan Elliott-Said, had a tough upbringing. Growing up in Brixton, young Marian, of British and Somali descent, experienced racism in a hostile environment and questioned her own identity. , which she addressed in a poem she wrote called “Half Caste”. Being an outsider in this sense made Marian a natural fit for the UK punk rock movement and led to her becoming Poly Styrene and forming X-Ray Spex in 1976.

With his memorable bugle singing and striking stage appearance (including outrageous outfits and braces over his teeth), Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex reached a time of glory, highlighted by their now classic album. Germ Free Teens and an appearance on the popular British music TV show top pops.

The band solidified their place in punk rock history with their signature song “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” .” In addition to the theme of identity, the charismatic Styrene touched on other topics in her songwriting that now seem quite prescient about society, such as genetic engineering and consumerism gone mad. Alongside groundbreaking punk bands such as the Raincoats and the Slits, Styrene—as a woman of color in the white male-dominated world of rock—paved the way for future female rockers.

But despite his popularity as a punk rock star, Styrene struggled inside and felt unsafe. Facing the pressure of success and struggling with mental health issues, Styrene was hospitalized and misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. She left X-Ray Spex at the height of their heyday in 1979, recorded a solo album, Translucency, who didn’t burn the charts, then joined the Hare Krishna movement. But while pursuing spirituality as a member of the Hare Krishna, Styrene still suffered from traumatic and mental health issues that also affected Bell, who was a child at the time. It all came to a head when young Bell left Styrene to live with her grandmother, leading to a period of estrangement between mother and daughter. “Creative people don’t always make the best parents. And she certainly neglected my needs at times,” Bell would later say.

There is a somewhat happy, if bittersweet, ending to Poly Styrene’s story, as the singer and her daughter finally reconciled and became close. Before her death, Styrene made a comeback performing with X-Ray Spex at the Roundhouse in London in 2008. She also recorded what would be her last solo album, 2011. Indigo Generation. Bell went on to write a 2019 book about her mother’s life, Glory of the daywith Zoë Howe, who also co-wrote the film.

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché reaffirms Styrene’s legacy as a revolutionary rock artist. It also goes against the conventions of musical documentary in which the biggest story isn’t all about the music, the band drama, or the excess of rock star glamor, but about a unique mother-daughter relationship and complicated. Bell’s literal journey to understand Styrene as both rocker and flawed parent is quite powerful, even heartbreaking at times.

Styrene and X-Ray Spex may never have achieved greater popularity and commercial success due to their untimely breakup, but they paved the way for female rockers and girl-fronted bands. “I set out to make sure my mother’s artistic legacy gets the recognition it deserves,” Bell said in a statement from the director about the film, and the resulting work certainly achieved that. goal and more. Hopefully this will introduce Styrene to a new generation of rebels.

For more information on upcoming U.S. screenings of “Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché,” co-directed by Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, click here.

Diana J. Carleton