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“Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” Reviewed

It isn’t often that you’ve been involved in a moment that has just been revisited in a documentary but so it proves to be with Poly Styrene in New York, March 1978. In the documentary by Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell with Paul Sng, they spend a long while on Poly with her band X-Ray Spex in New York, a journey that lasted no more than one week. The band performed four sold old nights at CBGBs and cancelled one night because Poly was ill. They performed once a night. The documentary claims they performed twice a night, they performed once a night. It was four yobs from London and Poly and her porn director manager-boyfriend Falco. The LES may have been many things in 1978, but it certainly wasn’t the Hadestown the documentary claims it was and if New York topped Poly into serious mental problems, I would claim the acid she dropped nonstop was a better reason.

Clearly, none of that matters except if I found the New York portion riddled with mistakes maybe the rest is?

Having said that, I know three Poly Styrene albums:

Germ Free Adolescents – A+

Translucence – A

Generation Indigo – A

In the midst of UK punk, X-Ray Spexs were, if not the best band on either side of the ocean, way up there, and I would put them like this

The Sex Pistols

The Ramones

X-Ray Specs

My respect for Poly Styrene ( real name Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, contracted to Marian Elliott) has never waivered, if you only know the album, try the singles B Sides from 1978-1979 as well; everything she ever wrote and sung is first rate, and her passing on to cancer at the sadly young age of 53 in 2011 was a major loss. I wrote about her often, here in the first year of rocknyc, here I wrote about her passing, and actually got a thank you after my rave for Indigo Girl (sorry I can’t find it). I loved Poly despite not much liking her in person. If you hang out with somebody for days (we were staying at the same hotel and I was friends with the drummer) and they still snub you, either it is her or you and at the age of 22 I was pretty certain it was her.

So watching “”Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché”, well, is that what happened exactly? It isn’t that her daughter is rehabilitating Poly’s image as the groundbreaking bi-racial woman dealing with a severely racist and segregated Brixton due to an English mom and Somalian father. From an early age, Poly developed a DIY aesthetic to everything she did, she made and sold clothing that would become part of the garish and yet secure looking, childlike rejection of society, wrote poetry, a rebellion from a society that wasn’t inviting her in.

The movie has some wonderful musical moments, and if nothing else the X Ray Specs on stage were a unique post-punk fury in the midst of sound, with Poly’s powerful vocals an early harbinger of the trashing of the environment on the non-degradable world of plastic beaches, it was her great theme. But her other great theme, as the movie gets right, is alienation. To use the racist language of the 1970s, half-castes were outcasts. And punk rock was for outcasts.

X-Ray Spexs were huge from the get go, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” was a clarion call for the English working class to shake their shackles in the world’s face. With the look and the spark, X-Ray Spex played the punk rock clubs of London on a hard fast and yet weird and self-protracting sound between punk’s hue and cry and an after punk crack in the physical world’s façade. In an act not properly explained, Poly fired saxophonist Lora Logic – Wikipedia claims she was let go because she was only fifteen and returned to school. Is that why she formed Essential Logic a year later?

After London, Poly began to fall apart claiming a sighting of a UFO. She was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic when she was, in fact bi-polar. The collapse ended with her daughter being severely neglected and Celeste, nearly starving to death at a countdown to starvation 50 pounds, being taken by the authorities and handed to her grandmother. Slowly, Poly rebuilt her life and joined the Hare Krishna’s. With her Generation Indigo album, written with Celeste, just released , Poly was diagnosed with breast cancer. Poly and her daughter had reconciled by then and Celeste scattered her ashes on the Ganges in India per her final request.

The film uses found footage and photographs, recordings, as well as excerpts from Poly’s diaries (read by Ruth Negga (she is on Broadway in “Macbeth” this Spring), close up with Celeste Bell follow throughs and a story that circles back to Hinduism. It’s a moving and kind portrayal of a true artist who fought back against the usual suspects and was only stopped through the dreaded cancer. The documentary was fan funded and certainly got the fans remembrance they deserved. It is available on VOD.

Grade: B+

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