There is untold power in the oft-not-so simple act of being seen. It’s impossible to underestimate the impact punk rock pioneer and person of colour Poly Styrene – AKA Marianne Joan Elliott-Said – had when she first strutted on stage as the frontwoman of game-changing band X-Ray Spex.
There she was, the daughter of a Scottish-Irish single mum and a handsome Somali dock worker, born at the end of the ’50s when mixed-race families were still vanishingly rare in Britain. And yet Poly Styrene powered on up from poverty to prominence in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by white men.
Buffalo Stance’s singer Neneh Cherry, interviewed in haunting documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, shares how much the norm-smashing singer inspired her career. “There is something in Poly’s sound and in her voice and in her expression, in her lyrics and in who she was, you could say it’s anti-establishment… but for me it was like, I could see that it was possible, and that it was important to fight against the predictable holes that we are all surrounded by as human beings, but particularly women.”
But the rocky path to fame doesn’t necessarily lead to good fortune. While many docos focus on the heavy price stars have to pay, few balance this quite so successfully with the cost passed on to their children, as does Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché. Co-directedby Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell, alongside filmmaker Paul Sng, it offers a raw insight into the reality of a life lived within the eye of a creative hurricane. “People often ask if she was a good mum,” Bell says in the opening minutes, “It’s hard to say.”
Elegiac but unvarnished, the doco draws on Poly Styrene’s diaries, as narrated by Ethiopian-Irish actor Ruth Negga, who recently appeared alongside Tess Thompson in director Rebecca Hall’s astounding debut feature Passing.
Early on, Bell talks about how overwhelming her mother’s funeral was. The influx of punk rockers was overwhelming, as was the idea that Bell now had to be the steward of a legacy she barely understood. It would take five years before she was ready to dive into her mother’s things, including sketches, poems, lyrics and more. Her mother’s ashes sat in a box in the wardrobe for just as long.
Blown away by her artistry, Bell had to weigh this hard-earned respect against her memories of a difficult, often neglected childhood. Some of this is intergenerational. Poly Styrene grew up incredibly poor and struggled to fit in with either of the largely segregated black and white communities that called Gosling Way Estate home. Her mother was a fighter who hated being asked where she was from, when she was London born and bred, a cruelty Bell would experience too.
There were many times Bell was all but ignored while her mother hunched over her typewriter. Poly Styrene’s writing railed against capitalism, but Bell also recalls she was a shopaholic who dragged her around punk fashion outposts, including Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End boutique on the King’s Road. But Poly also refused to be sexualised, even shaving her head after a night getting wasted at Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten’s flat before revealing the new look to a shocked crowd at an anti-fascist concert the next day. As Bell frames that moment, “It was a powerful statement, but also a cry for help.”
Bell is at pains to put Poly Styrene’s struggles in context. As she sees it, her mother’s youthful confidence was eaten away by public scrutiny. Poly Styrene’s despair about the wastefulness of our world was turbo-boosted by a trip to New York, and exacerbated by the introduction to a harder drug scene. Disillusioned by the artifice and insincerity of the music industry, Poly walked away from the Spex at the height of their success, but the life that followed wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing.
Poly threw in with the Hare Krishna movement, uprooting them to live in the mansion bought for the religious group by The Beatles band member George Harrison. But even as she found some peace in meditation there, further breakdowns would follow before a bipolar disorder diagnosis. A difficult custody battle would see Bell’s grandmother, Nanny Joan, take over her care.
There is hope here, too and a pathway to healing for Bell revealed in the doco. She and her mother collaborated on her final solo album, 2011’s Generation Indigo. They even appeared on stage together in one final gig alongside the Spex, but this joyous moment is overshadowed by a cruel twist of fate: her mother’s breast cancer. “By the time I realised how lucky I was to have such a remarkable woman as a mother and a role model, it was too late,” Bell says. “She was leaving her body.”
That’s the thing about legacies. They’re complicated, and few docos explore those peaks and troughs as thoroughly as Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché. It is magnificent, and it’s hard to disagree with Pauline Black, frontwoman of revered ‘2 Tone’ punk-ska fusion band The Selecter, as she says: “The world is playing catch-up on Poly Styrene, not the other way around.”
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is now streaming at SBS On Demand:
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