Women of inspiration: Poly Styrene

Poly Styrene, in many ways, has fallen into a certain degree of obscurity since her band X-Ray Spex split in 1979. Prominent figures within the New Wave punk scene in the UK during the late 1970s , X-Ray Spex produced some of the greatest, most profound, lyrics of that era. Despite this, the music press only seems to remember the Sex Pistols – the punk equivalent of a manufactured boy band – and the likes of X-Ray Spex are largely forgotten. Or so it was thought. Clearly many people still remember the force of nature that was Poly Styrene, or Marianne Joan Elliot-Said: a documentary film, I am a Cliché, telling her story was recently crowdfunded. It later received official funding from Sky and aired on Sky Arts.

The film follows Celeste Bell, the only daughter of Poly Styrene, as she retraces her mother’s steps and tells the incredible (and at points, heartbreaking) story of her life. The story is of the first woman of colour to front a successful rock band in the UK, a tortured genius, and undoubtedly one of the coolest people of the 20th century, but mainly of a mother and how her relationship with daughter Celeste progressed over the course of Poly Styrene’s career. The story of the documentary is told mainly through diary entries (voiced by Ruth Negga), personal accounts from Bell and interviews with fellow musicians and those who knew her. The visuals of the film are simply stunning; the shots of Celeste looking through her mother’s personal belongings are cut together with an unbelievable amount of brilliant archive footage, photographs and artwork – of which Poly Styrene created most. It truly is a visual treat to watch. 

Image: Falcon Stuart

The influence of Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex cannot be overstated, and this is shown within the documentary if only through the people who speak within it. Kathleen Hanna, of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin. Pauline Black, of The Selecter. Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth. Rhoda Dakar, of The Bodysnatchers, and The Special AKA. They all testify to how influential the work of Poly Styrene was to them, and to the greater music scene. Without her influence over Kathleen Hanna, it is entirely possible that the Riot Grrrl movement would never have happened. The film also features contributions from iconic figures of the period, including Vivienne Westwood and Don Letts, interspersed between the monologue of Celeste Bell and Poly’s personal diary entries. 

A stand-out point within the documentary is the period of time which X-Ray Spex played a series of shows at the iconic CBGB club – famed for spawning such bands as The Ramones, Blondie, Television and Talking Heads to name but a few. Spending time in New York, the film reveals, Styrene was astonished by the huge prevalence of advertisements and consumerism. These themes were obviously prevalent within her lyrics – for instance, “It’s 1977 and we are going mad / It’s 1977 and we’ve seen too many ads”, from ‘Plastic Bag’. Many of the observations made in her diary entries, read aloud within this film, correctly predict how advertising has shaped or damaged the lives of people in the modern day. 

Image via the Oedipus Project

Thankfully, the documentary is not confined only to Styrene’s time with X-Ray Spex, though that section of her life is undoubtedly fascinating. It also deals with her childhood as one of the first waves of mixed raced children in the UK and how it caused Marianne to feel like an outcast. The prevalent racist attitudes in the UK during 1960s and 70s with regard to the rise of the National Front and Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ hate speech are not often covered from a biracial perspective, however this documentary deals with the topic in a very informative way. It is an important story to be told in terms of the social history of the UK and is far too often glossed over. 

Her struggles with her own mental health, her unsuccessful (or rather, unappreciated) solo career, her dedication to the Hare Krishna movement, and her glorious early 00s comeback are all detailed within the film. Aside from being a story about a pioneering and gifted poet and lyricist, it is simply a very interesting and important story. The fact it is finally being told and Poly Styrene is finally receiving the credit she is due is a cause for joy. I am a Cliché is one of the most interesting and well put together music documentaries in recent time. If you are a fan of the band, feminism, music history or social history in general you will likely enjoy this film. As stated by Pauline Black within the film, “The world is playing catch up with Poly Styrene, not the other way around.”

Header image: Redferns