Identity is a complex matter. We carry multiple identities externally and internally. Celeste Bell and Paul Sng co-direct the documentary Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché as a revealing portrait of Bell’s mother, the punk vocalist Poly Styrene, told by way of Bell’s memories, Poly Styrene’s journal entries, interviews, and stories told by music and punk luminaries such as Kathleen Hanna, Neneh Cherry, and Thurston Moore.
Poly Styrene comes through not just as a trailblazer—something already known by those familiar with the history of punk rock—but as a multilayered individual, the very antithesis of a cliché.
Bell opens Poly Styrene by narrating, “My mother was a punk rock icon. People ask me if she was a good mom. A ‘good mom?’ My mom would ask. ‘How banal, how mundane.’” The viewer is immediately introduced to just two of the competing identities Poly Styrene wrestled with, famous musician and mother. Many more identities become apparent in the course of an hour and a half. Poly was born Marianne (Marion) Elliot to a Somali father and an English mother.
As a mixed-race child, she felt like the ultimate outsider—not white, but not black enough. Growing up in a council estate in Brixton, she had plenty of time for self-invention given that her mother was usually at work and her father mostly absent. She started out as a hippie but then saw the Sex Pistols perform live, and as was the case with many outsiders, found the ideal community within which to express herself artistically and carve out her own identity. Punk offered possibilities.
She took on the persona of Poly Styrene, both as an anti-hippie statement and an anti-consumerist statement: “I had done that whole way of travelling around and living in harmony with nature. There was so much junk then. The idea was to send it all up. Screaming about it, saying: ‘Look, this is what you have done to me, turned me into a piece of Styrofoam, I am your product. And this is what you have created: do you like her?’” (from the Jon Savage book, England’s Dreaming).
Poly headed one of the most innovative bands of the English punk scene. X-Ray Spex featured Poly, a mixed-race woman as vocalist, and Lora Logic, a female saxophone player. The sound was an exciting hybrid of The Sex Pistols, Roxy Music, and early Stooges.
Rock personas, as David Bowie discovered, have a way of overwhelming the creators of those personas. The commanding power, exhilaration, and adoration gained onstage by the persona often contrasts with a fragile human being trying to find themselves. Following a record deal, exposure on Top of the Pops, and a New York tour, Poly was never the same.
She began to use harder drugs, had a quasi-breakdown in John Lydon’s bathroom, and began feeling the effects of bipolar disorder—illness and rock fame destroyed the careers of Syd Barrett and Ian Curtis, to name just two. Poly had to kill the persona and break up the band if Marianne were to survive. She metamorphosed her identity once more. She crafted a solo music career with a softer sound and became a devoted Hare Krishna. Her new persona took on a new name, Maharani.
While Poly Styrene’s life makes for compelling viewing, what puts this documentary over the top is Celeste Bell’s recounting of her own life. Rarely do we get the perspective of the children of rock stars. Bell’s honesty shines through when she admits that as a little girl her mother’s outfits embarrassed her, and she often felt jealous when her mother devoted her time to music. Creative individuals do not make ideal parents. Bell’s difficult childhood and her mother’s struggle with mental illness led to periods of alienation between the two. What we gain from Bell’s documentary is a wonderful sense of her own diverse identities—daughter, musician, author, and director.
In the song “Identity,” Poly sings: “Identity is the crisis can’t you see?” Poly’s mixed race along with the presence of the National Front in England made her very aware of her identity from an early age. There is also something about fame that makes one very aware and insecure about their identity. The choice of Poly Styrene as a name was both a conscious critique of the disposability of pop stars and the role artificial beauty standards played in the packaging of female musicians by the music industry.
Even while critiquing the standards imposed on women, Poly was hit by the insecurity that comes with such standards. She at times felt uncomfortable by her body type and the corrective braces on her teeth. Celeste Bell and Paul Sng have gifted us both an intimate narrative of Poly Styrene as mother and a moving tribute of Poly’s musical significance.
Poly Styrene was at the forefront of those who challenged suffocating notions of how women could express themselves vocally and in terms of their looks in the rock world. Poly, at times, felt immense pressure over being the archetypal woman-of-color-pioneer. There were many Polys—mother, mixed-race, hippie, punk vocalist, poet, social critic, and spiritual seeker. The one identity that cannot be denied, whether she willingly chose it or not, is inspiration. As Neneh Cherry succinctly puts it, “I started singing because of Poly.” Surely, Neneh Cherry was not the only one.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.