A Punk Rock Star’s Daughter Sets out to see her Mother Through and Through


Fans of the English punk band X-Ray Spex who tune into the new documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché expecting an extended tribute to the short-lived but influential group are quickly set straight before the title credits kick in. This isn’t so much a “behind the music” exploration of what made their music stand out from the clamor put forth in that late 70s cultural eruption. Rather, we’re ushered into a process of mother-daughter reconciliation between the late singer best known as Poly Styrene, and her only child, Celeste Bell, who serves as the film’s narrative focal point. 

While the artistic career of Poly Styrene, born as Marianne Elliot to an English mother and a Somali father, receives prominent attention over the course of 90 minutes, the strength of the film rests on Bell’s reflections of her own experience, growing up as the daughter of a woman who was thrust into celebrity status as a teenager before she had any idea of how that unanticipated burst of fame would affect the rest of her life. 

As a longtime fan of the band, my curiosity was more than satisfied with the amount of screen time that was dedicated to X-Ray Spex. Their debut single “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” and debut LP Germfree Adolescents were in heavy rotation on my turntable back in the late 70s. Styrene’s powerful vocals and the band’s blaring saxophone hooks gave them a unique sound, distinct from the standard sneer and bark of so many punk rock singers and buzzsaw power chords of that era. But like so many groups that popped into prominence in that first wave of punk, they were unable to figure out what to do for a follow-up – the Spex seemed to lose focus, one might say. And with such an abundant flow of new music coming out in that scene as the 70s switched over to the 80s, it’s not all that surprising that the groups quick and quiet demise was scarcely noted by me and presumably quite a few others who nevertheless appreciated what they had accomplished in their brief run. 

But right where the broader awareness of X-Ray Spex as a pop culture phenomenon breaks off, that’s where I Am a Cliché picks up to tell a story that’s much more interesting and ultimately heartbreaking than your standard one-hit wonder, flash in the pan, “where are they now?” rockumentary. As it turned out, while the band did go through a few personnel changes unrelated to the singer’s imminent mental health problems, it was Poly herself who quickly realized that for her, the show really could not go on. At least, not on the terms that the commercial music business demanded, especially in the hard-living environment, saturated with drugs, sex and violence, that soon took its toll on the teenage pop icon. 

The film traces Styrene’s struggles back to some of her formative experiences, growing up as a bi-racial child of a single mother in a British society, facing a wide and sadly predictable range of prejudices and insults from peers and strangers alike. That background conditioned her to develop a degree of toughness and resilience that comes through clearly in the archival performance and interview clips from her years in the band. She self-identifies as a “rebel’ when asked about it by an off-screen voice, but she does so with a demure quality that implies something other than festering anger and resentment as the motives for her non-conformity. Poly’s driving force was more a quest for freedom of expression, mutual respect and spiritual liberation, rather than a nihilistic unleashing of chaos and destruction for its own sake. 

In songs like “Identity”, “I Am a Poseur”, “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” and “Let’s Submerge”, Poly shows herself to be a dismayed observer of commercial and social exploitation. Her lyrics find their common theme in raising listeners’ awareness of how we’re all being manipulated and bolstering our confidence to join her in breaking free from the norms relentlessly pushed at us through consumerism and modern advertising. 

But the awful truths that Poly recognized in her sung and written musings proved to be ominously overpowering to her sensitive nature. As her reputation as a performer and her colorful DIY aesthetic raised her profile, she was introduced to more extreme levels of debauchery than she’d previously encountered, culminating in a series of behavioral crises that led to her being institutionalized for a short term and soon afterward the break-up of her band.

I Am a Cliché does a dutiful job chronicling the subsequent decades of Poly’s life as her journey meandered from years spent living in a Hare Krishna community in the 1980s through occasional, ultimately short-lived re-entries into the pop music scene in the 90s and 2000s. There are enough video materials still extant to provide some visual insight into Poly’s experiences later in life, after she had receded from the public spotlight. Interviews with Poly’s contemporaries (mostly conducted off-screen) fill us in on events for which no other records exist. One gets the sense that her formative struggles in addressing the contradictions and pressures of her complex cultural identity took the greater portion of her life to arrive at anything resembling a peaceful resolution. The film also demonstrates the toll that Poly’s relentless searching, questioning and experimentation took on her daughter Celeste, creating a new round of issues to sort out in the following generation. 

Even though Poly died much too young from cancer in 2011, aged 53, she was granted an opportunity toward the end of her life to round out her artistic career with a final solo album Generation Indigo released just one day before she passed. We’re also given a glimpse of her final live performance of her signature song “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, recorded that same year, as she was accompanied by Celeste on vocals in a moment that must have been cathartic for both mother and daughter. That scene, bracketed by Celeste’s affirmation that the long-sought reconciliation was achieved at the end, allows I Am a Cliché to wrap up its account of the life of Poly Styrene on a note of hopeful uplift, though the bittersweet aftertaste of a sensitive soul rudely devoured by the callousness of our world lingers. 

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, directed by Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, is available on demand for rental or purchase on Apple TV, VUDU, Redbox and other digital streaming platforms.