As the singer in X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene (born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) would become an iconic part of the British punk scene that developed in the late ‘70s . Despite the punk label, she was a fiercely individual personality as we see in this documentary. Directed by Paul Sng and Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell, this is as much Celeste’s story as it is the singer. She narrates the tale of her mother by rediscovering her heritage from the archive of material Poly left behind when she sadly passed away in 2011.
Plagued at the time of her fame by racists and sexists, she was an outsider whose lyrics would be amongst the most powerful of the punk era. The music may have been pigeonholed as punk, but with her unique dress sense and individual look, Poly would be far removed from her spikey-haired, gobbing contemporaries.
The film brings Poly’s dairies to life, with Preacher’s Tulip, Ruth Negga, providing a voice to her writing. Celeste’s experiences of her mother are tragic as she describes living in a Hari Krishna commune and her mother’s subsequent hospitalisation for mental health issues, but the pair’s eventual reconciliation is ultimately uplifting.
It’s refreshing that the ‘talking heads’ that usually make up retrospective documentaries like this are only heard and not seen, keeping the focus firmly on the subject. Among the wealth of commentators are members of Poly’s family and people who knew her during her years of fame, such as Don Letts and Pauline Black, and those influenced by the singer, like Thurston Moore and Neneh Cherry.
The film is continually enlightening, taking us behind the curtain of the punk scene, where on the surface everyone was equal, but where Poly never really fit in. Her persona shines through the archive footage like her Day-Glo outfits, showing an excited youngster with lots to say in her lyrics, which are as relevant as they were back in 1978.
Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché is available to watch digitally from March 5th.