Mari Elliott, who became punk singer Poly Styrene in 1976, lived at such an important time in history. And her life, music and iconic fashions have all increased in significance over the nearly ten years since Poly passed away aged 53 in 2011. As punk girls, we were inspired by and fascinated by her appearances on Top of the Pops, and photos in the music press. In preserving Poly’s story as an important part of punk history, she was lucky in having a daughter – Celeste Bell – who has taken on the curation, archiving and writing of her story. This was first told in the must-have book written by Celeste and Zoe Howe, ‘Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story’ and now in the partially crowd-funded film ‘I Am A Cliche’, broadcast for the first time today 6th March on Sky Arts at 21:00 GMT.
We, Vim and Lene were lucky to see ‘I Am A Cliche’ as it was premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival, followed by a Q and A session with director Paul Sng and Celeste Bell. Today we also talked about the film and Poly Styrene’s life and music on Brum Radio with presenter Adrian Goldberg and Celeste Bell. We were full of praise for the film; our blog site wasn’t really intended to be a review channel but occasionally we like to recommend something so here goes …
We enjoy watching biographical documentaries for different reasons, but the format has risen in popularity in the last few years. For musicians, the story telling can have a great soundtrack, maybe some live footage if it exists, along with interviews and TV appearances. For Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex, there isn’t a huge amount of archive film that shows Poly performing or speaking about her music at the time. And this is where director Paul Sng’s bold decision not to have the talking heads approach enlivens the film terrifically. Speaking on Brum Radio, co-writer and producer Celeste Bell explained that Sng wanted to get away from the expected approach; we would hear the voices of Poly’s contemporaries, her sister, daughter and friends, but without seeing them talk to camera. Instead, the film’s visuals would help the viewer stay completely in her world. We think that this approach is a major triumph for the format and we enjoyed the use of other 70s archive footage to set the scene, including archive film of people’s lives at the time, anti-racism protests, kids hanging about and the sheer bleakness of post-war cities.
The narration is shared between Celeste’s imaginary conversation with her late mother, extracts from Poly’s diaries read by Ruth Negga along with insight from a huge range of Poly’s contemporaries. Much of this is with the benefit of hindsight and more up-to-date social attitudes towards women and people of colour. Artists such as Pauline Black, Don Letts and Rhoda Dakar explain the difficulties for Britain’s first dual heritage generation, where Poly didn’t feel that she fitted in with either the white girls or the Black girls at school. Letts and journalist Vivien Goldman also reflect on the way that Poly was ignored and mistreated by some of the ‘mean guys’ on the punk scene, whether it was Sid Vicious playing a cruel trick on her, or most of them not recognising Poly’s anguish and need for intervention due to mental health issues. As we said, people at the time didn’t have the awareness and attitudes that are more common now.
The film’s narrative is made all the more vivid by the truly immersive way the film is constructed. Poly’s significance is illustrated with a mix of vintage footage combined with contemporary visits to the places that landmarked her life; from Hastings pier to the dazzling lights of Times Square. We congratulate Celeste and Paul Sng for this inspirational film and know that it will bring Poly’s energy and ideas to a whole new generation.