Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche – The Many Forms of Legacy

Say what you will about Poly Styrene but she was anything but a clich?.

Directed by Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, the new documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche is a fascinating exploration of one woman?s legacy through the eyes of the daughter she left behind. Starring Oscar nominee Ruth Negga as the voice of Poly Styrene, Clich? examines the life of the punk icon and X-Ray Spex frontwoman and the impact that her voice has had on the music industry. However, Poly?s life was more than her music. After her passing, Celeste Bell (who is also Poly?s daughter) takes the opportunity to deep dive into her mother?s career while also reconciling their difficult relationship.

You can be forgiven if Poly Styrene isn?t the first name that comes to mind. Though she was frontwoman of the legendary punk band, the X-Ray Spex, the band often fades into the background in an era of The Clash and Sex Pistols. (?The world is playing catch up with Poly Styrene, not the other way around,? the film notes.) Even so, although she may not be the most famous performer of the era, Poly certainly may be one of the most groundbreaking. With a voice that transcended genre, she refused to be pigeonholed into one particular style, despite falling in with icons of the punk world. As half African-American, she found herself both mixing with and alienated from two different ethnicities. What?s more, as a female frontperson, she was a rarity in the rock scene at that time as well. In any number of categories, Poly broke through racial and gender barriers at a pivotal time in world history.

At the same time, Poly Styrene was also a woman who was struggling to emotionally reconcile her fame with the sensitivities of her soul. Inasmuch as Clich? examines the groundbreaking nature of her music, so too does it also speak to the destructive power of expectations and image set upon those in the entertainment industry. As the public made increasing demands on her to maintain her ?image?, Poly?s inner pain became more devastating to her life and career. In this regard, Clich? also bravely explores Poly?s battles with mental health with honesty and humility. Whereas her fans saw her as an icon, the film views her as a person.

In fact, although Bell and Sng use multiple fans and historians to explore the impact that Poly left on the punk culture of the late 70s, it?s Bell?s personal touch that resonates the most. As she revisits the life of the mother she knew, we can see that she?s also learning a lot about the mother she never knew. Because her mother?s struggles with fame deeply affected her early life, Bell?s journey into past is a complicated mix of love and hurt. Nevertheless, with each step into her mother?s life, Bell has the opportunity to gain new perspective on her own childhood and their complicated relationship. 

As a result, this is a film that becomes as much about healing as it does about history.

Powerful and candid, Poly Styrene: I Am a Clich? is an excellent look at a trailblazing voice in the music scene. However, it?s greatest strengths stem from its most personal moments that get behind the stardom and into the soul. As Bell revisits her mother?s past, there?s a restoration that begins to take place within her as well and the end result is something that is as encouraging as it is educational. Although it is incredible to see legacy that Poly Styrene?s has left through her music, it is just as amazing to watch a family?s legacy be repaired.

To hear our interview with Celeste Bell, click here (YouTube) or here (podcast).

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche is available in theatres and on VOD on Friday, February 4th, 2022.

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