A documentary with value; this film celebrates the magnetic charm of anglo-Somali frontwoman of X-Ray Specs, whilst journeying through the effects of fame, drug use and a misdiagnosed mental health disorder.
Created by Bell Sng and Poly’s own daughter Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene: I am A Cliché delves into the woman behind the persona; Marion Elliot-Saïd.
Born to a Scottish-Irish mother and a Somalian father, Marion wrote extensively about identity and the reality of her dual heritage in Post-War Britain.
The film navigates through Poly’s intellectual socio-political lyrics along with her fascination for plasticity as a coping mechanism to deal with the explosion of consumerism.
The lyrics to Art-i-ficial:
When I put on my make-up
The pretty little mask not me
That’s the way a girl should be
In a consumer society
There is a poetic intimacy created through dolly shots of the estate Poly grew up on. Various musicians voice the struggles of racial tensions and the stigma attached to having a mixed-race family. At first, Celeste seems a million miles from these harsh times. She strolls along the pier on which her mother first saw the Sex Pistols in an empty hall on Hastings Pier at 19 years old, taking it all in.
But then she delves deeper into her mother’s struggles with mental health and how her eccentric creativity left Celeste malnourished and unattended. Misdiagnosed with schizophrenia in her early twenties led to frequent hospital admissions until she was finally diagnosed with acute bipolar disorder much later. Celeste explains her mother’s initiation into the Hare Krishna movement in the early eighties, their relationship breakdown and subsequent reunion.
The doc has a really intense effect in which you feel as though you are in Celeste and her mothers’ world. You empathise with the pain described as it’s accompanied by sombre imagery and archive footage. The talking heads format is altered, with the interviewees only being heard, as opposed to being shown on screen. Various musicians paint a picture of how Poly navigated the punk scene in both London and New York, exposing Sid Vicious as an immature bully and Poly as a spontaneous but withdrawn observer.
Amongst the many fans and fellow musicians, The Bodysnatcher’s Rhoda Dakar explains the appeal of punk to the black communities, “We were embraced by punk because it was full of people that nobody else wanted,”
I think this picture of Poly amongst Sid and Nancy at Johnny Rotten’s house is used so well in the film as it’s pretty clear that she’s the weakest link in that little clique. You can almost see Sid locking her in a closet and thinking it was funny (one has to try to elicit laughter from people when they are devoid of any other decent characteristics) Punk was just a platform for Poly to express herself through, I’m sure if it wasn’t there she would have found another one.
Poly’s image permeates your thoughts as the brilliant Ruth Negga narrates her diary entries, making the film a true tribute and an exquisite insight into the real woman. These excerpts from Poly’s mind really help to paint the picture of Poly being an overwhelmed and empathic soul who absorbed everything around her.
The complexity of fame and one’s relationship with themselves is explored in heartbreaking depth throughout the film. It’s available on Now TV amongst other platforms, I really recommend checking. it out.