One of the final film screenings pre-lockdown for me was at the Glasgow Film Festival 2020; White Riot was on at Glasgow’s Cineworld. Naturally it feels organic for the next to be Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, which overlaps with footage, as we get a brief glimpse into X-Ray Spex gig in Victoria Park after Poly Styrene had shaved all of her hair off. This documentary provides an in-depth background about the motivation behind this and many other decisions the front woman made.
Proclaimed by Billboard as ‘one of the least conventional front-persons in rock history’, Poly Styrene hit the headlines as founder of acclaimed punk band, X-Ray Spex. Scrutinised and judged, Poly or Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, found life formidable under the spotlight and soon made some drastic changes just as the band were starting to peak success.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is the most recent documentary which will have it’s world premiere screening at the Glasgow Film Festival 2021. Directed collaboratively by Paul Sng (Dispossession, Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain) and Celeste Bell, who intimately sets out to explore her mother’s legacy and celebrate the life of a true pioneer of punk, whilst also pondering on her own upbringing and the more challenging aspects of her childhood.
After watching a very early gig by the Sex Pistols in an empty hall on Hastings Pier, playing a set of cover songs, Marianne was inspired to put an ad in the paper for ‘young punx who want to stick it together’ to form a band. And that was how she formed X-Ray Spex.
In 1978, after a gig in Doncaster Styrene had a vision of a pink light in the sky and felt objects crackling when she touched them. Thinking she was hallucinating, her mother took her to the hospital where Marianne was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, sectioned, and told she would never work again. There was a lot more to it and it wasn’t quite as simple as the medics made out.
I Am A Cliché is a beautiful juxtaposition of the old archived footage with Celeste’s fresh perspective, often travelling back and forth to key landmarks in Poly’s life. Insightful and thought-provoking, highlighting mental health, what fame and success can do to a sensitive soul, and the impact that breakdowns and curiosity, depression and a superficial lifestyle can have on musicians. Narrated and led by Celeste this film possesses raw and delicate moments as well as contributions from Thurston Moore, Neneh Cherry, Vivienne Westwood, Glen Matlock, Kathleen Hanna and Paul Dean .
This fragility makes it, adding to the formulaic documentary style, as we follow her daughter around, feeling out and inhaling the life and complexities of her mum. It’s a worthwhile 89 minutes, and gives you a solid understanding to Poly Styrene and the enigma that surrounds X-Ray Spex’ founder.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is being screened at Glasgow Film Festival 2021 from 27th February – 2nd March 2021