Sunday, January 30, 2022

My Mother, the Punk Rocker: On Celeste Bell’s Documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

(Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, 2021, UK, 96 mins) 

"It's been a rollercoaster ride, but I wouldn't change a thing."--Poly Styrene to The Guardian in 2011

Made with Chinese-British filmmaker Paul Sng (Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain), Celeste Bell's documentary about Poly Styrene, née Marianne Elliot-Said, isn't a standard cradle-to-grave portrait, but rather a daughter's journey into her mother's past in order to make sense of their relationship. 

That makes it more intimate and less objective than most music documentaries; an approach that can prove a blessing or a curse depending on the director. The most obvious pitfall: first-person films can end up saying more about their non-famous makers than their famous subjects. For my money, Aiyana Elliott's 2000 film about her father, The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, gets the balance right more often than not. 

In Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, Bell narrates and appears on screen, so she starts by centering herself, but Poly's voice is part of the mix, since Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga (Loving, Passing) voices her poems and diary entries, capturing Poly's soft, high voice perfectly. 

As Bell sifts through artifacts, in addition to the 2019 biography she co-authored, the film proceeds through Poly's humble beginnings (Slits biographer Zoë Howe contributed as writer to both book and film). 
Born in Brixton in 1957, Poly and her sister, Hazel Emmons, grew up in a council estate, the "half caste" results of a union between a single white mother and an absentee Somali father. Though often asked, "Where are you from?," Bell insists, "She was a Londoner born and bred." 

More voices continue to come into play, making for a richer, less solipsistic work. Speakers include Lora Logic and Paul Dean (X-Ray Spex, Essential Logic), musician and filmmaker Don Letts (Big Audio Dynamite), Gina Birch and Ana Da Silva (the Raincoats), Rhoda Dakar (the Special AKA, the Bodysnatchers), Pauline Black (the Selecter), Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Julie Ruin), punk professor Vivien Goldman, punk poet John Cooper Clarke (snapping gum in archival footage), fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, and chat show host Jonathan Ross. 

Poly's embrace of punk provided a sense of community missing from her youth. In the words of an ad she had placed in Melody Maker, she hoped to assemble a band of "young punx who want to stick it together." X-Ray Spex provided her with an outlet to sing about her concerns, like consumerism, and wear whatever she wanted, including outfits she made and sold herself. "I actually started to sing because of her, to be perfectly honest," admits Neneh Cherry, also of mixed-race heritage, who would go on to join the Slits and Rip Rig + Panic before embarking on a solo career. 

Like Kathryn Ferguson's Sinead O'Connor documentary, Nothing Compares, I Am a Cliché avoids talking heads. Speakers comment from the perspective of today, but only archival images appear on screen. When filmmakers cycle through the same photographs and video clips repeatedly, tedium can result, but Bell and Sng have assembled enough material to keep things moving (I contributed to their well-run Indiegogo campaign, and wear my Poly-in-a-combat-helmet t-shirt often).   

After signing to EMI, X-Ray Spex released their sole album with the original lineup, 1978's electrifying Germ-Free Adolescents, made TV appearances, and went on tour, even playing a residency at New York's CBGB that Thurston Moore remembers with fondness--he felt "anointed" when Poly handed him the mic to shout along with "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" In 1991's indispensable punk diary England's Dreaming, Jon Savage describes Poly as "a striking woman with a surprisingly loud, gutsy laugh."  

If New York was beneficial to the band's nascent career, it was terrible for Poly's mental health, and she was increasingly uncomfortable with the attention and pressure that accompanied fame. She started to have visions and ended up sectioned several times. What she saw as a spiritual awakening, friends and loved ones saw differently. Both things can be true. To add insult to injury, she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, rather than bipolar disorder, and accordingly mistreated. The yearning to breathe free led her to pull the plug on X-Ray Spex in 1979. She was 21.

Poly's husband, Adrian, and daughter, Celeste, would arrive in the years afterward as she continued to make music, but with increasingly less support from labels and press. Oddly and disappointingly, there's no mention of her 1981 solo debut Translucence, 1986 EP God's and Goddesses, or even X-Ray Spex's 1995 return with Conscious Consumer.
Then Poly found Hare Krishna, which took priority over family and career (Lora Logic, née Susan Whitby, would join her at Hertfordshire's George Harrison-donated Bhaktivedanta Manor). Spiritual practice, however, wasn't a replacement for proper psychiatric care, and Celeste ended up living with her grandmother after a protracted court case. "Creative people don't always make the best parents," she says about her distracted, unpredictable mother. "And she certainly neglected my needs at times."

The documentary then skips ahead to Poly's 2011 comeback album on which she collaborated with Viv Albertine (the Slits), Youth (Killing Joke), and her reconciled daughter. Musically, she hadn't missed a step. As Albertine says in her 2014 memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys., "I'm glad she got her drive back and made her album, Generation Indigo, before she died... She was a real doer."

After years of extreme ups and downs, Poly had been in a good place. And then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was discovered too late, because she had, once again, been misdiagnosed and mistreated when she sought help, a notoriously common occurrence for women of color.  

Celeste and Sng speed through her final months. Though they don't mention it, she ended up in hospice care that same year, during which time she gave a remarkable interview to The Guardian--well worth a click if you missed it at the time.  

In the end, there's too much Celeste in this film and not enough Poly. It's the daughter's story to tell, and her perspective has value, but she's a consistent on-screen presence. We're constantly looking at her--she's asking us to see her. And maybe that's the point: by asking to be seen, particularly by those of us interested in her mother, she seems to have found a way to make up for the attention Poly wasn't able to give.


Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché opens at the Beacon Cinema on Feb 2 and on VOD on Feb 4. Generation Indigo cover image from Discogs, all others from Poly Doc Ltd, BBC Arena (Poly portrait), Kino Library (Poly on stage with X-Ray Spex), and Falcon Stuart (X-Ray Spex collage).  

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