Tuesday 2 March 2021

Identity: "Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché"

Paul Sng and Celeste Bell's Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché forms a rare example of a music doc with a clear perspective, which pushes beyond the usual well-illustrated nostalgia. Slowly, as if she were still processing the loss and what her mother meant to her, Bell - the daughter of X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene - talks us into and through the story of how a part-Somali teenager growing up in peaceful Hastings elbowed her way to the front of the boysy, spittle-flecked punk scene. We're getting two movies for the price of one, essentially. One is the portrait of that scene, familiar to a degree: the vivid monochrome cinefilm of early Spex gigs, Kodachrome swatches of punks kicking up the Kings Road, sprout-faced council-estate kids giving fascist salutes, Peter Powell doing the rundown on TOTP. Bell's contribution, as someone born in punk's aftermath, has been to try and square the Poly everybody else mourned with the Marianne Elliott she knew. Here, obvious affection and admiration for who this singer was and what she represented is tempered from time to time by personal reservations, some minor (as a child, Bell endured long spells of being dressed in flowery Laura Ashley fabrics), some more lingering besides. This bond was damaged soon after Elliott marched the pair of them off to live in a Hari Krishna temple at the turn of the Eighties; there, mum's refusal to sleep resulted in what now sound very much like manic episodes, and with those an overall deterioration in her mental health and ability to care for her child. The underlying thrust is that the woman who once sang "I'm a cliché, you've seen before/I'm a cliché, live next door" would have been a whole lot easier to understand and cohabit with if she had just been a cliché.

It makes for an innately feminist project, presenting us with a daughter wrestling with her mother's image and legacy in sympathetic close-up, and - in a wider shot - with one generation of independent women reassessing their predecessors' aims, achievements and shortcomings. The process first yielded a book, 2018's Day Glo: The Poly Styrene Story (which Bell compiled with the author Zoë Howe, who gets a co-writer credit here), which combined oral history with photographic artefacts its subject left behind, and the film's myriad shots of Bell flicking through its pages give rise to a sense this material has been pre-rehearsed, ready-chaptered; nothing here has the recognisably punk energy of, say, Julien Temple's collage-docs. That in turn adds to an understanding that life moves on, however, and in its place, Bell and Sng cultivate a distinctive, ruminative tone, recruiting Ruth Negga to voice the singer's diaries. What emerges from this more considered approach are themes, rather than the trivia male-authored music docs tend to trade in: this is Poly Styrene discussed not in terms of chart positions, but race, gender, body image, the insecurities that stem from being a girl in the boys' room of punk. On the soundtrack, a polyphony of voices, combining Styrene herself, Negga-as-Styrene and Bell, plus loved ones, scene observers and contemporaries, and those who followed in Poly's wake (including Neneh Cherry and Thurston Moore); filling any gaps, the music, which has endured pretty well, as punk forever in search of an angular melody, with the benefit of lyrics that kept their eyes open. Finally, though, we're looking at two women who've used words to navigate the world and its vagaries. Whatever their past differences, Elliott and Bell - mother and child - don't seem quite so dissimilar by the end of this quietly moving endeavour.

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and the Modern Films website from Friday; it also screens on Sky Arts this Saturday at 9pm, and on Friday 12th at 11pm.

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