Friday, April 02, 2021

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche

One of my great inspirations in pursuing a DIY ethic is the late Poly Styrene, singer and writer for X-Ray Spex and someone I sadly missed meeting during my time in the UK. Not that I didn't try. I distinctly remember speaking to her manager Falcon Stuart around 1995-96 and trying to arrange an interview, but it did not happen. And I missed the X-Ray Spex reunion gig at the Roundhouse in 2008, the gig that would turn out to be her last, as one of the interviewees in this documentary points out. Styrene's death in 2011 robbed the world of a visionary figure who was ahead of her time. Stuart, who passed in 2002, also appears in archive footage and I was startled to discover the two were lovers back in the day. It is one of many eye-opening moments in this unusual film, whose narrator is none other than Celeste Bell, the daughter of Poly Styrene. 

Or rather Bell is the daughter of Marion (also frequently spelled Marianne) Elliott, but had to get used to sharing her mother with the public figure who was Poly Styrene. Their tumultuous relationship is at the heart of the film, which follows Bell around the various haunts of her mother, as if seeking traces of an elusive figure: Hastings, Hertfordshire, New York City and even India. Bell pops up in brief tracking shots as the soundtrack gives voice to her thoughts while actress Ruth Negga gives voice to Poly's written thoughts. The diary is extraordinary, showing what a brilliant writer Styrene was. If only she had written a novel! And Negga's voice is uncannily similar to Styrene's. If a bio-pic ever appears, she surely must be a shoo-in for the starring role. 

What comes out of the piece is really how much Bell wanted to be the daughter of someone a bit more normal and less volatile than Styrene who was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia before being correctly diagnosed with bipolarism. Bell explains how she grew up with her grandma after many adventures with Styrene including time in a Hare Krishna temple. 

Bell seems to be coming to terms with both this personal legacy and with upholding her mother's creative legacy as she notes how much she treasured working with her mother on her solo album, Generation Indigo. Many other interviewees appear in voice only, among them Gina Birch and Kathleen Hanna, but it is Poly's voice and her relationship with her only child that comes through most movingly. It makes one want to run out and re-listen to Styrene's records. 

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