Few voices captured the liberation of UK punk rock like Poly Styrene’s otherworldly wail. Born Marianne Elliott-Said, she may have chosen her unusual stage name as a “send up of being a pop star,” but her voice and message were the real deal. A new documentary, “Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché,” now in theatres and on VOD, aims to remind the world of a ground breaking artist whose legacy can be heard in the riot grrrl and Afropunk movements and beyond.
Based on a book by Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell, the film is an intimate look at the Anglo-Somali legend through the eyes of her child. “My mother was a punk rock icon,” Bell says. “People often ask me if she was a good mum. It’s hard to know what to say.”
The story begins in 1957 with the birth of Marianne, daughter of a Scottish-Irish legal secretary and a Somali-born dock worker. Her indoctrination to punk rock came via a 1976 Sex Pistols concert. The music was a revelation that led to the name change and formation of X-Ray Specs, the five-piece band whose sole album, “Germfree Adolescents,” is considered a genre classic.
Styrene became a regular target for the press who ridiculed the braces on her teeth, her weight and unconventional clothing choices. Her record company, much to her displeasure, slimmed down her album cover photo as they tried to position her as a sex symbol for a new generation.
“I wasn’t a sex symbol,” she said, “and if anybody tries to make me one, I’ll shave my head tomorrow.” And she did, at Johnny Rotten’s house during a party.
Her songs asked questions most other acts on the pop charts weren’t willing or equipped to ponder. “When you look in the mirror do you see yourself?” she sings in “Identity,” a slice of musical anarchy that was a rebuke to the images the media tries to foist upon people in the public eye.
Styrene’s rocky relationship with fame, her youth and a failed solo album led to a divorce from the music business as drugs, depression and a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia touched her private life.
Filling in the gaps between nicely chosen archival film clips are readings from Styrene’s personal diaries by Ethiopian-Irish actor Ruth Negga and Bell’s personal recollections.
“Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché” is an intimate film. Unlike most music biographies that focus on the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll aspects of the story, this movie also weaves in the social history of Britain, mental health and fame, while maintaining a personal touch courtesy of Celeste Bell.
Bell looks beyond the image, the media-imposed identity of her mother, to find the rebel, the radical and the real person who struggled to determine where she fit into the world. The documentary, directed by Bell and Paul Sng, is a rarity, a movie about punk rock that casts its eyes beyond the musical anarchy to portray the real people behind it.