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  Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché Turning Day-Glo
Year: 2021
Director: Celeste Bell, Paul Sng
Stars: Poly Styrene, Celeste Bell, Neneh Cherry, Pauline Black, Don Letts, Kathleen Hannah, Lora Logic, Paul Dean, Thurston Moore, Vivienne Westwood, Youth, Bruno Aleph Wizard, Jonathan Ross
Genre: Documentary, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Poly Styrene wasn't her real name, of course, she was born Marianne Elliott in London and brought up by her single mother. Times were tough for her and her sister because they did not have much money, and socially in the nineteen-fifties and sixties there were many who did not accept them, because while their mother was white, their (absent) father was black, and that offended a lot of people in the Britain of the day. But Marianne was not about to let this prejudice hold her back, because when she was in her late teens in the seventies she went to a gig by the punk band Sex Pistols and, like so many her age, it changed her life. She started a band, and X-Ray Spex were born, with the renamed Poly Styrene as their frontwoman...

There were two perspectives vying for control of this documentary, one from Poly, and the other from her daughter Celeste Bell who did not, as she admits, have the greatest upbringing with her as her mother. Thankfully, not to spoil it, but they were able to reconcile their differences by the end of Poly's life and work together on her music, which was perhaps what she should have been concentrating all along, and would have been had the industry been more helpful to her. So this was one of those "journey" documentaries, not a road movie but one where our narrator, Celeste, guides us through her emotional pathway to come to terms with her parent who had so much difficulty coming to terms with herself, often through no fault of her own.

Watching this, you take away that Poly had a strong enough personality to prove her worth as a celebrity on the music scene, but also that the world around her was loaded with pitfalls that she only too easily fell into - she was a teenager when she first found fame and had so much novelty about her that the media were keen to focus on her. For this reason she went from someone simply being herself and expressing herself through music to someone with serious mental health issues when she was treated as a curio to be not taken seriously, to the genuine detriment of her sanity. There were really two halves to this documentary, first where Poly quickly rises to renown, and the second, the comedown where she crashes thanks to a lack of support from those around her; admittedly, she was growing increasingly difficult, but one state fed into the other.

With that in mind, you may spend the first half willing the subject on with her unique take on the world translated into exuberant songs and a fashion sense that was like nobody else's at the time, and then spend the latter half more and more depressed that her talent was misused so badly, though not by herself. Being the focus of so much attention, there are plenty of clips to be seen, even from her Hare Krishna days when she tried to soothe her frazzled nerves through spirituality and failed, and these are overlaid with voiceovers from unseen friends, colleagues and fans, as well as family. This is fairly effective as far as that goes, but we do seem adrift in time for much of this, with nothing to anchor us to the specific points in Poly's life which tend to pass by in a fugue. To be fair, that could be how it felt to her to live them, and at least Bell made an effort to include new "tribute" style clips filmed more recently of herself: the final scenes do achieve some measure of peace. As a portrait of a pioneer who deserved better, this had real value.

[The nationwide virtual cinema release is Friday 5th March 2021.

Available to watch at Modern Films - Click here to visit their service. Viewers can select a participating local cinema to share the revenue of the virtual box office.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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