A punk icon who died too young is wistfully remembered by her daughter in “Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche,” narrated and co-directed by her daughter, Celeste Bell.
Downbeat and eye-opening, it’s a marvelous time punk time capsule and a fine film memoir of a mother the daughter only lately came to understand.
Built on performance footage, a few TV interviews and featuring a Who’s Who of British and American punks giving testimonials, “I Am a Cliche” takes us from the rise to the fall, and then the afterlife of the self-mocking bi-racial “Rock Against Racism” champion.
Bell leads us through the former Marianne Elliott-Said’s childhood, with help from the future Poly’s sister, and creates a film with the daughter remembering her mother by “retracing her footsteps.”
“Creative people don’t always make the best parents,” Bell admits. But as she visits the hall on Hastings Pier where young aspiring singer Marianne’s life was changed and her journey to Poly began — at a mostly-empty Sex Pistols show in 1976 — the daughter admits to finally developing an appreciation for all her mother was and represents, a decade after Poly Styrene’s death.
We hear how Mum came up with the name (“the Yellow Pages”), how she “placed an ad in Melody Maker (magazine),” recruited a band with sax and guitars, drum and bass that they named X-Ray Spex. And we hear for ourselves how this unique vocal talent punched through the blast of backing music to take center stage in the mid-70s scene that the Sex Pistols pretty much invented.
Oscar-nominated actress Ruth Negga (“Loving”) voices Poly reading excerpts from her diary, quoting from print interviews and reciting her self-revealing poetry. And bandmates such as sax symbol Lora Logic and Paul Dean, Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth marvel at the daring tunes (“Oh Bondage Up Yours!,” “Identity,” “I Am a Cliche” and the ominous “”The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” and stage persona that the “half-caste” girl from Brixton brought the world.
That last song was something of a harbinger, as it was based on Styrene’s seeing a UFO and pre-figured the mental illness that prematurely ended her career and turned X-Ray Spex into punk legends, celebrated as much for the brevity of the bright flash they made as for their genre-defining LP — “Germfree Adolescents.”
The fact that this isn’t her first documentary about her mother, and that Bell — who looks about half her age — is the only speaker other than her mother to appear on camera — give this the slightest whiff of exploitation. That’s the only knock against the film, though.
If you didn’t live through that era or keep up with the UK newspapers, Styrene’s later life will deliver the film’s biggest surprises. But Bell, appearing on camera but speaking in voice-over like everybody else, makes the celebration fun and the tragedy bittersweet in this fine tribute to the mother she only got to know and appreciate “too late” to gain the full benefits of being raised by an icon.
Rating: unrated, some profanity
Cast: Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene, Thurston Moore, Kathleen Hannah, Rhoda Dakar, Don Letts, Ana Da Silva, Pauline Black, Paul Dean, Adrian Bell, Lora Logic and Ruth Negga as the voice of Poly Styrene
Credts: Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, scripted by Celeste Bell and Zoe Howe. A Utopia release.
Running time: 1:36