POLY STYRENE: I AM A CLICHÉ (2021) Reviews of punk documentary

 

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Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is a 2021 British documentary film about the titular frontwoman of the 1970s punk band X-Ray Spex. Directed by Celeste Bell and Paul Sng from a script co-written with Zoe Howe.

Blurb:

Poly Styrene was the first woman of colour in the UK to front a successful rock band. She introduced the world to a new sound of rebellion, using her unconventional voice to sing about identity, consumerism, postmodernism, and everything she saw unfolding in late 1970s Britain, with a rare prescience. As the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, the Anglo-Somali punk musician was also a key inspiration for the riot grrrl and Afropunk movements.

But the late punk maverick didn’t just leave behind an immense cultural footprint. She was survived by a daughter, Celeste Bell, who became the unwitting guardian of her mother’s legacy and her mother’s demons. Misogyny, racism, and mental illness plagued Poly’s life, while their lasting trauma scarred Celeste’s childhood and the pair’s relationship.

Featuring unseen archive material and rare diary entries narrated by Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga, this documentary follows Celeste as she examines her mother’s unopened artistic archive and traverses three continents to better understand Poly the icon and Poly the mother.”

Reviews:

“Central to the film’s narrative is Bell herself, who grew up with someone quite different from the iconoclastic figure of her mother’s public image. Sensitively tackling issues of mental illness, the doc also allows the singer’s own thoughts to be transmitted, through diary entries and poems she wrote, audibly performed by Oscar nominee Ruth Negga.” AnOther

“Bell, who also co-authored her biography, narrates her mum’s life, with the aid of archive interviews, footage and excerpts from Poly’s diary read by Ruth Negga. This approach slightly grates at first but ends up being the strength of Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché. We’re given the inside track, warts and all, which affords us a much greater understanding of a remarkable woman.” Backseat Mafia

” …this is Poly Styrene discussed not in terms of chart positions, but race, gender, body image, the insecurities that stem from being a girl in the boys’ room of punk. On the soundtrack, a polyphony of voices, combining Styrene herself, Negga-as-Styrene and Bell, plus loved ones, scene observers and contemporaries, and those who followed in Poly’s wake…” Cinésthesia

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.” Critical Popcorn

“With a focus throughout on Poly’s achievements as a writer, the film makes room for her to speak for herself as much as possible: to be heard, not just seen […] Few female artists receive this kind of treatment. It’s a refreshing and continually engaging piece of work.” Eye for Film

“The film’s secret weapon is its candour — about Britain, the music business, mental health and the subject herself. It is probably easier to admire an original thinker, we realise, than to be one. Or as Bell admits, to be their child. Yet the Poly we meet here would demand nothing less than absolute honesty.” Financial Times

“The almost-heavenly glow and pin-sharp presentation of the modern-day footage of Celeste and her discoveries is satisfyingly contrasted with the grainy archive footage of her mother […] The filmmaker’s courage in confronting a sometimes chaotic and traumatic childhood and the love she has for her mum, makes this a beautiful, insightful and unusually compassionate look at a key figure of the punk scene.” The List

“This is a very worthwhile film specifically about a woman’s sour lot in the music industry, and the fact that Poly remains appealing despite her antisocial tendencies is down the careful tonal balance that the film strikes.” Little White Lies

“While walking down Hastings Pier, Celeste Bell muses on a question she’s often asked. “My mother was a punk rock icon,” she states. “People often ask me if she was a good mum – it’s hard to know what to say…” In I Am a Cliché there’s no such uncertainty – it’s a perfect tribute to a complex, brilliant, groundbreaking woman.” NME

“While the timeline is not always obvious, the depth of this profile beggars belief. Styrene’s music and the way she forever transformed the future for women in the industry are achievements that deserve to be celebrated. It is an additional wonder that such a celebration takes the form of a nuanced, detailed and delicate film, a fitting way to tell the story of a woman who tore down and rewrote the standards of entertainment.” Outtake

” …paints a compelling picture of a creative and innovative young woman going against the grain to break new ground in pop music. The band was very much her baby which she put together by advertising for musicians in the music press. She wrote all their material […] Much of the amateur footage shows Poly performing with the band.” Reform

” …offers a valuable reminder of the complex realities underpinning the lives of unconventional artists, especially when those lives are compromised by misdiagnosed mental health issues that require a more nuanced approach to unpack than is typical in the standard rock doc or biopic. In this respect, the film is anything but a cliché.” The Scotsman

“While there are a few too many shots of Bell sifting through her mother’s possessions or flicking through the book she co-wrote, her contribution at this point of the film is undeniably powerful […] But the film leaves us with a sense of closure. In her final years, she had apparently conquered her demons, rediscovered music and forged a new-found closeness with her daughter.” Screen Daily

Release date:

5th March 2021 online via Modern Films

Cast:

Kathleen Hanna … Self
Poly Styrene … Self
Don Letts … Self
Thurston Moore … Self
Neneh Cherry … Self
Vivienne Westwood … Self
Celeste Bell … Self
Youth … Self
Bruno Aleph Wizard … Self

Technical details:

89 minutes

Trailer: