For a band as frequently cited as X-Ray Spex, whose 1978 debut Germfree Adolescents was a blistering Molotov cocktail of nervous energy hurled at a society of plastic and consumerism, it’s strange to think how little we know about the personal life of frontwoman Poly Styrene. Part of that, of course, comes down to the British band releasing just one album during its original run, after which Styrene dropped one solo album and all but disappeared from the public eye. (But then again, the Sex Pistols had one album and have been part of the cultural conversation for decades). It’s not hard to wonder if the punk scene, which became increasingly white and suburban after its initial explosion in the late ’70s, has unfairly minimized the impact of a band led by a woman of color over the years.
Which is why Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, a new documentary about late X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene which made its North American debut at SXSW’s 2021 online festival, arrives as a welcome and necessary exploration of a complex, conflicted woman who carved a singular place for herself in the nascent British punk scene. Directed by Paul Sng and Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell, who also narrates, I Am a Cliché pulls back the curtain on Styrene’s struggles, contradictions and decision to break up the band at the height of their success (while not a hit in the U.S., they placed three singles in the U.K. chart’s top 40).
Born Marion Elliott to a white mother and Black father (he was Somali born) in what she described as a tough neighborhood, Styrene felt like an outsider from both the white and Black communities; some of the most revelatory parts of the documentary are Zoë Howe’s reading of poems (“Half-Caste,” “I Wanna Go Back to Africa”) that Styrene wrote about her racial identity. Considering the banshee warrior wail that characterized Styrene’s vocals, it’s unfortunately easy to miss the depth of her lyrics, but hearing her poems read aloud is a testament to the succinct strength of her pen.
Forming X-Ray Spex as a teenager by taking out an ad in Melody Maker, Styrene was famous (in the U.K., at least, by punk scene standards) by 19, with songs like the female empowerment anthem “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” and the consumerism send-up “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” spotlighting the absurdities of society. But as the documentary makes plain, Styrene was an artist full of contradictions. She was a DIY punk icon who made her own clothing and album artwork while railing against consumerism; she was also, according to her daughter, someone whose idea of letting loose invariably involved shopping for clothes. The righteous fury of her lyrics and vocals was a stark contrast to her all-smiles (braces and everything) warm personality in interviews. She was tough, but sensitive – a trip to New York City, whose underground scene was druggier and harsher than London’s, left her with scars she had a hard time shaking. As the documentary tells it, the darkness around her eventually began to take its toll, triggering episodes that would eventually lead to her spending time in a psychiatric ward (she was later diagnosed with acute bipolar disorder, which she struggled with until her death from cancer in 2011).
The thorniest contradiction of her personality also provides the documentary with its bittersweet, difficult emotional crux: She loved Bell, her daughter, but was often ill-equipped as a parent. When Styrene walked away from music to devote herself to Hare Krishna in the ’80s, she brought her daughter along to Bhaktivedanta Manor, where she refocused herself on her spiritual growth. And while Bell narrates some pleasant memories from that time, she makes it clear she was both undernourished and under-parented at the Hare Krishna community, and was grateful to eventually leave it for a more stable life with her grandmother.
Eventually, the two would come to terms with their fractured relationship, growing closer than ever before in the last years of Styrene’s life and even singing “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” together at a Rock Against Racism rally in 2008. As the documentary unravels the story of Styrene’s life, co-director and narrator Bell unwinds her knotty feelings toward her mother, an undeniably inspirational iconoclast who also wasn’t the best of parents. As Styrene’s daughter digs through her mother’s archives, she comes to terms with how both of those things can be true without one taking away from or justifying the other. And that’s what makes this nuanced documentary so satisfying. When Bell talks about her mother shaving her head right before a major gig, she acknowledges that such an act can exist both as a powerful statement against sexualization and a cry for help at the same time. One doesn’t negate the other.
Testimonials from the Raincoats, Thurston Moore, Vivienne Westwood, Kathleen Hanna and Neneh Cherry (another iconoclastic woman of color in music who outright tells us “I started singing because of her”) and an abundance of vintage footage make clear the appeal and impact of Styrene’s brightly blazing artistry. But it’s the documentary’s refusal to gloss over the bumpier parts of her life – or fall into the tired trope of the tortured genius whose artistry excuses any missteps – while still treating Styrene with love and admiration that ensures I Am a Cliché is anything but.