Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché

Film review by Martin Dickie

A new film about punk icon Poly Styrene opens with a drone shot high above St Leonards before cutting to cinematic glimpses of Hastings’ seafront. Styrene, real name Marianne Elliot, who relocated here in the early 2000s, is the subject of Poly Styrene: I am a Cliche, a feature-length documentary charting her unlikely rise to stardom at the outset of the DIY punk movement and her tumultuous relationship with daughter Celeste Bell, who co-directed the film.

Styrene, billed as the first woman of colour to front a successful rock band, was lead singer and principal songwriter of seminal punk outfit X-Ray Spex from 1976 to 1979 before a mis-diagnosis of schizophrenia derailed her career. The film features voiceover contributions from the great and good of the punk world, including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, film-maker Don Letts, The Selecter’s Pauline Black and pop star Neneh Cherry. Hastings is a key location in the film: the British-Somali singer was inspired to form her band after seeing the Sex Pistols perform at the Pavilion on Hastings Pier in 1976.

Poly (foreground) and filmmaker daughter Celeste Bell
PICTURE: Fabrizio Rainone

The film’s languid pace begins to make sense towards its emotional second half, when the true nature of the singer’s repeated breakdowns and their impact on her daughter, just a toddler at the time, is revealed. It is here, too, that the footage returns to Hastings, as Celeste traces her mother’s footsteps from the banks of India’s Yamuna River and the ashram she lived at during the Nineties to the corridors of Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in Denmark Hill and the stage of London’s Roundhouse, where a reformed X-Ray Spex played their final gig.

Hastings seems to have suited the fiercely independent, creative and trailblazing former front woman, who repaired broken ties with her daughter and even recorded a long-awaited solo album, Generation Indigo, which was released just a month before her death in 2011.

The true nature of the singer’s repeated breakdowns and their impact on her daughter, just a toddler at the time, is revealed

The film is showing at the Kino Teatr in St Leonards on Saturday July 3rd at 7.30pm and is available to stream at modernfilms.com,
a female-led, social issues-driven production company and virtual cinema.

You can also donate money to a crowdfunding campaign that aims to commemorate Poly Styrene with a blue plaque on the house she lived at in St Leonards. Go to crowdfunder.co.uk/blue-plaque-for-poly-styrene-of-x-ray-spex

Finally, if you knew or met Poly in Hastings or St Leonards and have an anecdote about her time here, we’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch by email [email protected] or via Instagram

Five of the best:
Key highlights from Poly Styrene’s career

Oh Bondage Up Yours! (1977)
X-Ray Spex 
Perhaps the best example of the then-nineteen-year-old Styrene’s unhinged vocal style, ‘Oh Bondage!’ is the band’s undoubted anthem and a rallying cry against consumerism and the patriarchy.

The Day the World Turned Day-Glo (1978)
X-Ray Spex 
Lead single from the band’s debut album Germfree Adolescent, ‘Day-Glo’
punished punk audiences with its shredding guitar, piercing sax and Styrene’s anti-consumerist shrieks.

Identity (1978)
X-Ray Spex 
The third single from Spex’s debut, Identity hinted at the fractured relationship Styrene had already developed with fame: “When you look in the mirror / Do you smash it quick?”.

Skydive (1981)
Poly Styrene 
After the break-up of her band, Styrene, who’d been writing poems since a child, toned down the punk energy for her debut solo record, Translucence. Skydive retains the Spex saxophone, but it’s a more soulful, post-punk sound that critics struggled with at the time but has aged very well.

No Rockefeller (2011)
Poly Styrene
Styrene’s revived recording career surprised many by not simply rehashing punk tropes, but by absorbing influences from contemporary pop such as M.I.A., who she gives a good run for her money on No Rockefeller.

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