Celeste Bell reassembles her mother’s life, reclaims her image and recalls their own troubled relationship in Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché. Co-directed with Paul Sng, it is an affecting, delicately balanced documentary of conflictual opposites, mental trauma and loss, which seeks understanding and ultimately a peaceful final resting place.
I Am a Cliché opens with blurred images of a child looking at a bank of televisions in a shop window, a woman performing on stage on multiple screens. “My mother was a punk rock icon,” begins Celeste. A vision of hazy memories perhaps, but a clear and immediate visualisation of the film’s intentions: to bridge the disconnect between public persona and private life, artist and mother, outward bravado and inner turmoil. Born Marion Elliott in south-east London in 1957, it would be her eponymous alter-ego as both solo artist and lead singer of X-Ray Spex for which she would find fame. But was she a good mum?
For a film which champions the bravery and defiance of an influential, singularly creative voice, praise should also go to Bell for confronting her own place in this story. A girl who was jealous of the time and attention that music held, but that she did not, and who would spend much of her childhood living with her grandmother. Only five years after Poly’s passing (in 2011) would Celeste feel comfortable going through the physical remnants and keepsakes of a life cut short by breast cancer. Part of the process of healing, of both grieving and laying grievances to rest, making I Am a Cliché is a courageous move by a young woman forever associated with her mother’s legacy.
A legacy that she can now better accept and understand with the passing of time. The film may have moments where it belts along to a frantic punk rhythm, the shotgun staccato of poetic lyrics hurled into a microphone, but for the most part its tone and pacing is contemplative. Through archive footage and videoed interview appearances, we learn of a similar opposition between Poly the performer and Poly the person. The raucous guitar, and punchy riffs that accompanied her scything vocals, delivered with characteristic venom, seem at odds with a deeply spiritual, sensitive and at times troublingly fragile soul.
From growing up as a mixed-race child in 1960s Brixton, right the way through her career Poly pursued a quest for identity, belonging. Purposefully defying definition or label, she eschewed the archetypal image of the young, angry black female, says one interviewee. When classified a sex symbol, she shaved her head; behind braces on her teeth and big, plastic clothes, she hid her female form. Further still, Celeste suggests that “she [her mother] secretly wanted to be a lady of leisure.” Feminism, individuality, self-determination, expression, motherhood and tradition all fight for dominance.
A fight against, notably, becoming a cliché. So attuned was she to all around her, that the inspiration she was for others was in turn fed by vicious cycles from ‘elation to despair’ of what others thought of her and an inability to handle life’s slings and arrows, recalls Celeste. However, for all that is said and remembered about Poly – by testimony as eclectic as Vivienne Westwood, Jonathan Ross, Thurston Moore and Neneh Cherry – I Am a Cliché allows its subject to speak for herself. Lending her vocal talents to bring Poly’s words to life, Ruth Negga instils new expression to past interviews, lyrics and other writings. An affectionate labour of love, cathartic yet bitterly honest, Bell and Sng’s films paints the full, unfettered picture.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63