Given an iconic musician like Poly Styrene, many of us hold personal and specific ties to the influential figure that penetrated the music, fashion and art realms. Yet who better to explore and present the nuances and complexities of such a prominent figure than her own daughter, Celeste Bell.
Contributing co-directional guidance along with Paul Sng in Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, Bell delves into and utilizes her mother’s diary entries, artwork, poetry and interview footage from other notable punk musicians to portray the significant and groundbreaking work Poly Styrene accomplished with the extension of her band X-Ray Spex as well as the emotional turbulence and complicated relationship inherent within their mother-daughter bond.
From a young age, Poly Styrene’s identity was never something she could take for granted. Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957’s post-war Britain, the commonplace question “where are you from?” was a perpetual threat to her existence considering her heritage and upbringing. Growing up in a working class family of color, her survival was incessantly diminished within her community. “Black girl carries her flick knife, will she cut me up for being half white,” she writes in her poem Half Caste. “It’s like saying you’re not quite whole,” states Bell. “A half person, a fraction.”
Starting a punk band became the perfect vehicle for her transformation, though she was often described as being a quiet observer rather than holding allegiance to any one stance. Styrene’s perceptive sensitivity became an overwhelming force as X-Ray Spex gained popularity and the band started touring in North America, playing residencies at New York City’s notorious venue CBGB.
Considering the frenetic pacing of touring coupled with the media and fandom, Styrene collapsed into a downward spiral to the point of questioning her own reality and ideals.
“It wasn’t a conscious attempt to be clever,” Styrene remarks in one interview. “I just thought that I’d write about all these plastic things because they seemed to be creeping in more and more. Which is why New York totally blew me apart.”
Creating the moniker Poly Styrene was initially meant to be tongue-in-cheek; a play on the disposability and plasticity of pop stars, until she saw how materialism was residing in and consuming the lives of society at large.
Poly Styrene’s precocious vulnerability is unfortunately what damaged much of her vibrancy and gentle nature upon her return home. Being diagnosed with schizophrenia (and later with acute bipolar disorder) and suffocated by a demanding public did not help her mental illness. In retrospect, many of those close to her believe they were not as sympathetic as they could have been, regrettably observing that they didn’t recognize her various cries for help. Bell was only a young child at this point, having to comprehend the various fluctuations of living with her mother under emotional turmoil in both a Hare Krishna community and subsequently in neglectful isolation, which makes rectifying her relationship with her mother all the more impactful before her mother’s passing to breast cancer in 2011.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is an absolute and resolute act of love: a personal document that not only highlights what a central role model Elliott-Said was in paving the way for women musicians across the world, but also as an extension of appreciation, forgiveness and the preciousness of time surrounding the impenetrable ties between a mother and her daughter.