Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, was a British punk feminist merrymaker who fronted the band Ex Ray Specs in the 1970s and 80s. She was of British/ Somali descent – a black woman with braces on her teeth and outlandish, trend-bucking fashion – who wrote and sang whip-smart songs about anti-consumerism and women’s oppression during a time when the scene was dominated by white males.
The new documentary about her life, called “Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche,” was written, directed and narrated by her daughter, Celeste Bell. The doc digs fairly deep into her mother’s personal and professional life with an abundance of footage and photographs of Styrene as well as other famous bands at the time like the Sex Pistols. Styrene’s poetry and diary entries are also peppered throughout the film and read by Ethiopian-Irish actor Ruth Negga.
In the making of the documentary, Bell is trying to make sense of her upbringing, which included living in a Hare Krishna community with Styrene as well as being raised by her grandparents for many years of her childhood. Her narrator’s voice is perfect, conveying a grown daughter simultaneously sad, confused and so very proud of her mother.
“My mother was a punk rock icon,” she says in the film. “People often ask me if she was a good mum. It’s hard to know what to say…”
Bell does a wonderful job revealing her mother’s many layers and honoring her largest contributions to the music industry as well as dismantling society’s standards for women. A standout moment was when her record label elongated the band’s photograph on the cover of their album to make Styrene appear thinner. Although she was unable to do anything about it – the records had already been pressed and the covers printed – she went on to spread her messages even more loudly and clearly in subsequent interviews, concerts and recordings.
Bell also included many snippets from different concerts and interviews that fully illustrated Styrene's raucous stage presence – including footage of her performing their iconic song "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!" – juxtaposed with her thoughtful-yet-humorous take on life.
Bell handled her mother’s mental illness – she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia when she was actually bipolar – with grace and honesty. She presented footage of her mother falling deeper and deeper into an abyss, with the majority of her depression centered on the the world’s fakeness. (Which is part of why she ironically chose her moniker in the first place.)
“All these plastic things creeping in more and more …” she states in the documentary. “And the weird thing about all the plastic is that people don’t actually like it but in order to cope with it they develop a perverse kind of fondness for it.”
My only complaint of “I Am A Cliche” is that some of my personal questions went unanswered. It sounds trivial considering all of the important ground that Bell covers, but I’ve always been curious about Styrene’s braces on her teeth. She was extremely poor and nomadic, neither of which explain how she paid for or maintained her braces, and for such a long time.
I also felt Bell glossed over Styrene’s love relationships, including the one she had with her father, but I can also understand how a daughter doesn’t want to wade too deep into the waters of her mother’s sexuality.
Although estranged for many years, Bell and Styrene had a strong relationship at the end of her life. Before Styrene’s death from breast cancer at the age of 53 she created a solo album and performed a concert for the first time in decades. She also spent a lot of creative and personal time with Bell, which results in her documentary ending with a sense of deeper understanding of her mother.
“Poly Styrene had to die so Marianne Elliott could survive,” she says.
The all-virtual Milwaukee Film Festival runs through Thursday, May 20. Go here to watch films like "Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche" and many more.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.