Written and directed by Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, co-written by Zoe Howe, the death of a punk icon and X-Ray Spex front-woman Poly Styrene sends her daughter on a journey through her mother’s archives. Featuring the voices of: Ruth Negga, Jonathan Ross, Kathleen Hanna, Don Letts, Neneh Cherry, Thurston Moore, Pauline Black, Vivienne Westwood and many more.
The aspect of this film that stands out so strongly is its disconnected and almost cold atmosphere. For a documentary that’s focused on providing an intimate exploration of Poly Styrene through her daughter’s eyes, it keeps you at arm’s length throughout. The problem is for the most part caused by its reticence to ever show its interviewees on screen, it sticks to a purely narrative style that’s extremely one note and too simple. The only exceptions to that voice over format are the moments with her daughter (co-director and writer Celeste Bell) and many of them are simply following shots, mostly giving you the back of her head, which really have nothing to add.
It’s a shame that it almost feels self-indulgent, for the only non-archive footage to be of Bell and not any of its many interviewees, even in spite of her intense connection to the story. There’s disappointingly not enough emotion or intimacy to justify telling the story through that lens, it could have been much stronger by purely telling the story of this complicated, talented woman, even if the angle of having her daughter involved may sound more appealing to some.
Despite those issues, the actual content and personal story of Poly Styrene is very interesting. It briefly touches upon the importance of her presence during the band’speak era, to have an icon like her to look up to for young Black and Asian women, especially in the world of punk which was almost entirely dominated by white men. It would have been great to see it explore that further and push the message of representation. However, its overall opinion of her feels slightly mixed, as time goes on it almost begins to feel as though it’s framing things negatively, especially when exploring her mental health, the tone of it does not add a lot of sympathy.
The surprising element is the poetry, it really highlights her sensitivity and intelligence, it’s a great window into her as a person and her larger talent rather than simply what the public saw. Although it does move quite slowly, it has a much more serious tone than expected, which doesn’t feel entirely appropriate to reflect the vibrancy of this icon. It would have been great to see it take more influence from her free-spirited, punk style instead of staying within a rather restrictive box.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché was a great idea that has a sadly one-note execution. It frustratingly restricts its inherently emotional story by never letting its interviewees step in front of the camera. Its intention of telling her complex tale is both clear and messy, at times it strays from sympathy and feels almost judgemental. There’s some fascinating information here but it’s not packaged in such a way to do justice to the intelligent, vibrant and highly creative energy of Poly Styrene.