Film Reviews / Indie Film / Music

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché review: Dirs. Paul Sng and Celeste Bell (2021)

I’m on record as a fully paid-up X-Ray Spex fan. I’ve waxed lyrical with everyone from old mates to the folks down at Camden’s punk-only record store All Ages Records, about the importance of Germ Free Adolescents and how fresh and modern it still sounds. Some 40 years after its debut we’ve pointedly preached at each other “This could be a brand new debut record by an up and coming band, it sounds so NOW!” – Converts making adverts for other converts.

Voiced by Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell, this posthumous document of the punk icon is told from the perspective of a possibly still-grieving daughter. The film raises as many questions about how we treat celebrities, their families and their legacies, as it does make a beautiful tribute to one of the most the unique voices of the punk era. 

Aided by archive footage and guest speakers, Celeste works her way through her mother’s legacy gently. She does it with a consideration of everything from the historic racial prejudices around the heritage of her family, to the fashion of the era, the influences on, and influence of that potent pop culture phenomenon then and now. It also tells of Poly’s battles with mental health challenges and the 70’s NYC punk scenes darkness. 

The stunning archive footage of TV shows, the Bowery scene, and 70’s Hastings rips away the years. The film talks of street politics, bold fashion statements and outsider identities finding a home. Poetic VO and interviews of Poly are mixed in alongside her daughters anchoring of the narrative. It’s like a conversation over decades. Mother and Daughter working out the big questions. Together.

Celeste tussles with her feelings and her memories. Sometimes she calls herself a brat or a bore while her mum broke barriers and changed the world. Poly is bolder, more matter of fact but also she’s full of it. Dayglo punk. Sexy saxy 3D pop punk (in the old sense of the word) is an easier sell than what this film is trying to do.

The way the press disrespected Poly Styrene and her age, her gender, her shape, was not given the gravity it should have been given at the time. Her approach was pioneering because it was a kids-eye-view of a sea change phenomenon. She spoke so eloquently about what was happening around her, it’s a huge shame she wasn’t consulted more. A unique voice drowned out by punk posturing. 

The talking heads and interviewees in this movie are impressive enough list to make even a doubter believe that X-Ray Spex live up to their own hype. Neneh Cherry, Jonathan Ross, John Cooper Clarke, Vivian Westwood, Janet Street Porter, Don Letts, all the usual vital “I was there man” voices adding weight. The triumph of the era as captured in the Rock Against Racism (also see my review of White Riot) shows or the Top Of The Pops appearances is shot through by her struggle to be understood, then her struggle to just be.

I Am A Cliché is a beautiful, gentle film that treats its subject matter with respect and kindness. Celeste talks of feeling closer to her mother through looking into her archive of things years after her death. She did the miles, lived the life and suffered at the will of her mother’s condition. She made a lovely tribute in this film. 

Fame fame fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain. 

I Am A Cliché will have a nationwide virtual cinema release on Friday 5th March. To find out how to watch, head to Modern Films

Viewers can select a participating local cinema to share the revenue of the virtual box office

For more background on the film, head here: polystyrenefilm.net

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