As a brand new movie concerning the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex is launched, Nick Levine speaks to the singer’s daughter and the documentary’s co-director Celeste Bell
March 05, 2021
This riveting documentary movie doesn’t provide a revisionist tackle Poly Styrene – not precisely, anyway. Because the thrillingly idiosyncratic singer driving X-Ray Spex, one in all British punk’s most dynamic bands, her place in historical past is already assured. Nevertheless it does reframe the late musician’s affect and legacy in a relatively extra trendy means. Billboard may need branded her “one of many least typical frontpersons in rock historical past”, however after watching I Am a Cliché, it feels extra correct to name her “one of the crucial genuine”.
Co-directed by her daughter Celeste Bell, the movie takes a private method that’s well-judged and affecting. “We actually didn’t need to do a standard biographical telling of Poly’s story,” Bell’s co-director Paul Sng says. “Over time, it kind of grew to become Celeste and Poly’s story, which is far more fascinating.” Bell, who serves as narrator, establishes the contradictions surrounding her well-known mother or father within the very opening body. “My mom was a punk rock icon,” she says matter-of-factly. “Individuals usually ask me if she was mum. It’s laborious to know what to say.”
Nonetheless, with evocative archive footage and excerpts from Styrene’s diaries learn by Oscar-nominated actress and former AnOther Journal cowl star Ruth Negga, Bell and Sng undoubtedly seize the spark and distinctive worldview that made Poly Styrene an on the spot cult hero. Neneh Cherry, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore all sing her praises, however the movie doesn’t tie Styrene to what would possibly reductively be known as her “1970s heyday”.
Images by Tony Barratt
Alongside the best way, we additionally find out about her troublesome upbringing in 1960s Brixton. Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Stated, the mixed-race daughter of a Scottish-Irish authorized secretary and Somali-born dock employee, she by no means felt totally accepted by both the native Black or white communities. “We had been embraced by punk as a result of it was stuffed with those that no one else wished,” remembers The Bodysnatchers’ frontwoman Rhoda Dhakar, a fellow mixed-race musician of the period. “We had been welcome as a result of we had been already outsiders.”
Later, the movie explores Styrene’s 1980s years dwelling at Bhaktivedanta Manor, a Hare Krishna temple within the Hertfordshire countryside. However although she modified her title to Maharani throughout this era and appeared to retreat from the general public eye, Bell says it will be a mistake to presume Styrene was ambivalent about her cult standing. “I imply, my mum as soon as advised me that she had invented leggings,” she says with a smile. “She’d see trend tendencies and say: ‘Oh, I did that in 1975.’” Bell says her mom “undoubtedly had an enormous ego,” mentioning astutely: “You may’t not have an ego, and do what she did, are you able to? She undoubtedly knew that she was forward of her time.
Images by Falcon Stuart
And rightly so – it’s actually no exaggeration to name Styrene a visionary. “Some folks suppose little ladies needs to be seen and never heard, however I believe ‘oh bondage, up yours!’” she speak-shrieks on X-Ray Spex’s seminal feminist anthem, Oh Bondage! Up Yours! Different songs on the band’s basic 1979 album Germfree Adolescents grapple with points regarding capitalism, public picture and identification, that are nonetheless related at this time. “I wanna be dehydrated in a shopper society,” she sings on Artwork-I-Ficial, providing her personal surreal model of social commentary. Styrene’s distinctive gown sense additionally stood out: not like different punks, she favoured vivid colors and jazzy patterns. She additionally wore secondhand garments earlier than they had been known as “classic”, and would possibly on stage put on something from a army jacket to a granny cardigan.
Interview footage from the time reveals the extent to which Styrene was scrutinised and othered by the media for trying completely different from the period’s mainstream feminine singers. Even the easy incontrovertible fact that she wore dental braces appeared to change into a significant speaking level. “The benefit of punk is that distinction was celebrated, however there was in all probability an excessive amount of made from her variations,” Bell suggests. “Individuals had been continually asking her about being a girl, asking if she was a feminist, asking her about race and identification.” Bell says Styrene in the end felt “fetishised for being completely different”, which “over time, simply added to her insecurity”.
In 1979, an exhausted Styrene left X-Ray Spex and spent a number of months in a psychological well being unit after being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. She continued to battle with psychological well being points for the remainder of her life, and was later identified, extra precisely, with bipolar dysfunction. “I truthfully suppose if she hadn’t change into well-known, she in all probability wouldn’t have had her first breakdown,” Bell says. “She was somebody who was in all probability vulnerable to psychological well being points, however I believe the set off for that to manifest right into a full-blown dysfunction was the expertise of being within the public eye.” Again in 1979, the music business hardly supported Styrene by way of her psychological well being battles. After watching I Am a Cliché and contrasting Styrene’s expertise with that of Britney Spears, a up to date performer who has additionally skilled psychological well being points, it’s tempting to ask if something has actually modified.
Tragically, Styrene died of breast most cancers on April 25, 2011, lower than a month after releasing a glowing new solo album, Technology Indigo. She was simply 53 years previous. Sng says that whereas engaged on the movie, he was struck by how many individuals contacted acquired in contact to share their cherished reminiscences of the singer. “They are saying issues like, ‘I met Poly as soon as at a prepare station and we chatted for half an hour – she was great,” he says. For Bell, it’s her mom’s undiluted artistic imaginative and prescient that also makes her so fascinating. “Probably the most exceptional factor about my mum is that she by no means did something primarily based on the approval of others,“ she says. “I believe that’s what makes her actually stand out – even from different folks we consider as distinctive.”