Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché
Beneath the layers of a punk icon
There were plenty of female punks in the late seventies but not that many female punk icons. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was just the sort of music that attracted angry young men to the stage. Perhaps there were other underlying reasons at play, like so many other strands of life around that time.
There was Debbie Harry, of course. I loved her but Blondie were always more pop than punk. For me the most iconic (there’s that word again) had to be Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. Everything about her was so exciting – the way she dressed, the way she sang and, of course, the things she sang about.
As a girl, I was never into anything mainstream so the things Poly stood for appealed to me. If I’m honest though, I never really looked any further than the top layer. I didn’t see that beneath the clothes, the voice and the songs was a vulnerable young woman called Marion Elliot.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché gave us a view into the real Marion Elliot, mainly from two perspectives – Marion’s daughter, Celeste Bell, and Marion herself courtesy of her diary entries. Sadly, Marion died of cancer in 2011 so her words are spoken by actor, Ruth Negga.
This is a film that takes in the flimsy shallowness of fame – everything Poly/Marion despised – as well as the confusion and alientation of growing up a mixed race child in the blatantly hostile and racist society of Britain in the sixties and seventies. Add to that the effects of a severe mental health condition on Marion and the people closest to her. Not always an easy watch but a compelling one.
By the end of the film my heart ached. For Marion, and for Celeste too. As she finally plucked up the courage to go through Marion’s things, Celeste laid her mum’s story bare so that we could all understand who Poly Styrene really was. I felt I knew her better and I watched the clips of her performances with renewed awe. What a brave woman she was.