The first thing that you notice about Celeste Bell is the striking resemblance to her mother. Same eyes, same lips, same face. Even if the documentary is all about the unmatched Poly Styrene, lead singer of pioneering punk band X-Ray Spex, Bell is still the main character. Crafted from artistic shots of Bell alongside old photos and concert footage of Poly Styrene, I Am A Cliché seeks to strike a balance between the persona that revealed itself onstage, the woman behind the music and her complicated identity as a mother.
The documentary of course shares the stories that we already know about Poly Styrene, the stories that she told in interviews since the beginning: the pivotal Sex Pistols gig that made her place an ad for a band in Melody Maker; how she chose her name from the Yellow Pages. But there are parts of her life that didn’t make it into the X-Ray Spex mythology. Behind her brash, screaming songs lies a lifetime of quiet, introspective poetry.
Her identity as a British-Somali woman was a palpable part of her life. A Londoner born and raised, Styrene was open about her frustration at always being asked where she was from. Although the punk scene was seen as a generally welcoming environment, to go on stage as a bold mixed-race woman wasn’t often seen. Even though Bell claimed her mother never felt at home in England, she was the heart of a cultural phenomenon that had its roots there. That’s not to say that the scene always took her seriously – Sid Vicious in particular does not come off well in I Am A Cliché.
What we also see is the intense pressure she was under throughout her short time in X-Ray Spex. Her demeanour in interview footage is shy, bordering on uncooperative; a stark contrast between the woman who blew the roof off every venue she ever set foot in. Eventually, this pressure culminated in a stint in the psychiatric ward and her eventual bipolar disorder diagnosis, an illness she battled for many years. When she was sectioned, she was told that she would never work again. It’s clear that Bell was deeply affected by seeing her mother’s struggle, and it played a huge role in their strained relationship.
Her mental health and her fixed focus on writing music often stood in the way of her relationship with her daughter, who was equally raised by her grandmother. Eventually, she left for India, which saw a deep change in her lifestyle as she engaged with the Hare Krishna movement when she returned to England. But this only served to create more obsessions and a further divide between mother and daughter. It’s a painful, isolated story and adds to the complexity of Bell’s role as the guardian of her mother’s legacy. There are beautiful moments too, when Bell joins her mother on stage in what would be her final ever concert for an encore of 'Oh Bondage! Up Yours!'.
Bell strikes the tricky balance between celebrating an influential cult icon and taking a deeper look at the woman herself - and the effect she had on her family. We hear from musicians like Kathleen Hanna and Pauleen Black on Styrene's immortal punk legacy as well her friends and family who saw the other side of Poly Styrene. Although there are difficult moments, this story obviously comes from a place of love. The idea of the time that Poly Styrene was simply a musician who had gone mad is retold with much more nuance and sympathy than before.
The first time I heard an X-Ray Spex song was on a late-night TOTP re-run, years before I got into punk music. That first impression of Poly Styrene as a daring performer with intoxicating confidence is the one that most fans of her music have of her; I Am A Cliché excels in showing the more tragic side of Poly Styrene, while honouring her legacy as a musician.
Watch Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché here.