Poly Styrene: Woman on Film

By Steve Erickson

Poly Styrene stormed her way into punk greatness in 1977 with the opening lines of X-Ray Spex’s first single: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard / But I think, ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’”

Her band’s 1978 album, Germfree Adolescents, is a classic, avoiding the genre’s traps and standing out through Styrene’s voice and perspective (as well as the unusual choice of a saxophone in the mix.) The band broke up before recording a follow-up, and Styrene — born Marianne Elliott-Said in London to a Somali father and a Scottish-Irish mother — only released two solo albums and an EP before her death from breast cancer in 2011. She was 53.

Styrene, who joined the Hare Krishna movement, suffered from misdiagnosed bipolar disorder and had a daughter, Celeste Bell, in the ‘80s. Although she had a difficult childhood, Bell grew up to idolize her mother. After a long estrangement, Bell and Styrene repaired their relationship and worked together on the 2011 album Generation Indigo. Later in the decade, Bell teamed up with Paul Sng to direct Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, a documentary that brings a deeply personal perspective to her mother’s life. It shows just how fast that life moved — within a few years, Styrene went  from an enthusiastic teenager selling clothing made from plastic to a woman repeatedly hospitalized for mental health issues. Released at a time when there were only a handful of female-fronted new wave bands in the U.K., Germfree Adolescents made her an icon, standing up as one of the most unique and influential albums from punk’s original wave, but living in the eye of sexist and racist condescension from the media and fellow musicians took an enormous toll on her. However, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché never reduces its complex subject to a tragic story or ignores the positive moments of her life.

The movie opens in the U.S. February 2nd. In preparation for that, I interviewed Bell and Sng via Zoom and original X-Ray Spex saxophonist Lora Logic, who went on to found and lead the band Essential Logic, by E-mail.

What was the genesis of this film?

Celeste Bell: The genesis was a book I was writing alongside Zoë Howe, Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story. Shortly after I started that with Zoë, I was introduced to Paul by her. He was interested in making a music documentary. We all get along, and a few months after I started writing the book, the two projects started happening at the same time. But due to financing, the book came along much quicker. It took five years to get the film made.

This is your fourth film, including a documentary about the Sleaford Mods. How were the challenges of this project different?

Paul Sng: In terms of the films I’ve made, this was the first one funded and made with a bigger team. In my previous work, there was just me and an editor or maybe a co-director.  I self-produced that work. This project was enhanced by the team. We had three great producers — Rebecca Mark-Lawson, Daria Nitsche, Matthew Silverman — and a great editor, Xanna Ward Dixon, with Zoë Howe as our writer. With that many people working on a project, there’s a danger you’ve got too many cooks. That level of collaboration was really good for me as a filmmaker. I think I learned a lot.

Do you think Poly would have been happier had she remained Marianne Elliott and never been put in the public eye?

Bell: That’s a good question. Who knows? My mother was a strong believer in destiny. I think she would have accepted her fate. “What happens is supposed to happen” was her philosophy. For sure, she could have had a happier, more uneventful life, but maybe she wouldn’t have achieved such great things. When you achieve what my mother achieved, it doesn’t always make for a happy life. She left something for the world, I believe. Of course, if she’d stayed away from a very predatory music industry, it probably would have been better for her mental health.

Lora Logic: That’s not easy to answer. Obviously, the entertainment business is an artificial, unnatural, stressful environment for anyone, full of ups and downs at the best of times. Poly revealed to me, on several occasions, intense traumatic experiences she suffered as a child. So even if she hadn’t been in the limelight, I think these traumas may have triggered instability in her at some point.

How much new footage did you shoot?

Sng: All of the stuff shot in the present day was new. That’s probably one sixth of the film. The rest is mainly archive, some unseen and some taken from libraries and Poly’s artwork and diary. All the tracking shots you see in the film are places that were iconic to Poly or have significance to Celeste. That was all of our original footage.

It seems like Poly kept a pretty large archive herself.

Bell: A lot of the footage was actually shot by my mother’s manager at the time, Falcon Stuart. He was also a filmmaker and photographer. A lot of [it] was taken when he was with her. Kindly, he let us use it. But we did have to clear footage from bigger archives, like the BBC, other TV stations and Getty. We played archival footage shot in a variety of places together with the footage Paul mentioned.  

Styrene’s solo albums have gotten a lot less attention than X-Ray Spex. After seeing the movie, I’ve been listening a lot to Translucence. It’s a huge change of style. You can see it being performed at a coffeehouse with just acoustic guitar.  What were her influences on that album?

Bell: The influences were music that came before X-Ray Spex. She wrote a lot of those songs pre-X-Ray Spex. She was actually singing under her solo name Mari Elliott, which is the closest to her real name. The music was closer to her heart, at least sound-wise. It’s a lot more mellow and introspective. That’s where she was in her head space then. She wanted to go in a more acoustic direction, which didn’t necessarily go over well with the fans. But it was a very brave decision to make.

How did you settle on the choice of interview subjects?

Sng: We decided they had to know Poly, be around at that time or have insight into the issues the films brings up. Some of the people came to mind easily. Neneh Cherry was around on the punk scene but did not know Poly directly. She was very influenced by her. Kathleen Hanna wasn’t around at that time, but Poly was a big influence on her and the riot grrrl movement. She’s on record as saying that without Poly, she didn’t think riot grrrl would have happened. But my favorite interview is the one with Hazel, Poly’s sister: just the warmth in her voice when she speaks. She knew Poly better than anyone other than Celeste. The stories she told us, not all of which could make it into the film, were a very good interview.

Celeste, you talk about a lot of very difficult experiences growing up. The first few lines of the film really have a lot of punch. Do you find out difficult to approach this subject, especially because the film is quite well-rounded in terms of the ups and downs of your experience with your mother?

Bell: Of course, when you think about doing something like this, it’s always a challenge. You have to ask ‘How far am I willing to go? How far will I delve?” It’s not always a pleasant history. In this case, I was not only the subject but I was the co-director, so I had to separate myself from my own story. That can be quite therapeutic because you can see things from an outsider’s perspective. So overall, I’d say it was largely a positive experience. It’s the first film I’ve co-directed, probably not the last.

Do you have a new project planned?

Bell: Yes, I’m developing a film about the Hare Krishna movement. We talk about it a little bit in this film, but it’s a story I’d like to explore. She remained a Krishna to the end of her life. She was not as deeply involved in the sense that she wasn’t living in a temple or commune anymore, but she was definitely a member of the congregation. She held on to those beliefs, which were a source of comfort.

Was she aware of groups like Bikini Kill and her influence on the riot grrrl movement?

Bell: I remember in the early ‘90s when I was a kid, she played a gig at the Brixton Academy. That was around the time of riot grrrl and the grunge scene. She started to get younger people coming to her gigs. She’d heard about these new bands influenced by her and was flattered and surprised in a good way. Even though the band played at CBGB, she did not realize how much of a fan base they had in the U.S. Germfree Adolescents did not come out there ’till the early ‘90s.

Do you think anything has changed in the way the media treats female musicians? In the interview clips, you can see how Poly wanted to put the focus on music rather than sexualizing herself, but that turned out not to be a way out of it. She wound up getting called fat and unattractive. It feels like a bind where however women present themselves, there’s no way out.

Bell: I don’t think it’s improved. If anything, it’s gotten worse, because female musicians are more sexualized than ever. I’ve spoken about this before, but there’s a kind of showgirl aesthetic which is mandatory for female pop stars, where you’ve got to be onstage in your underwear.

Logic: I think much of it depends on how a female artist projects herself. During the time I was in X-Ray Spex I didn’t witness us being objectified in that way, since we wore tube-like dresses, plastic macs with militaristic head wear.

How did you and Poly first meet?

Logic: I answered an advert in 1976, in Melody Maker, looking for “young punks.” I didn’t know what the word “punks” meant, but it sounded intriguing. I’d been playing the tenor sax alone in my bedroom, busking along to my favourite records, and decided it was getting boring.

How did the idea of using saxophone in a punk context, which no other band of that period was doing, come about?

Logic: Having a saxophone in X-Ray Spex was quite a spontaneous decision on behalf of Falcon and Poly. When I turned up for the audition my playing ability was not at all relevant, it was more that I was a 15-­year-old girl saxophonist with attitude.

How do you feel about the resurgence in interest in Styrene and X-Ray Spex?

Logic: I don’t think it is at all surprising, since appreciation for X-Ray Spex, as a unique and revolutionary band, has never really dwindled since 1977. You could say that songs like “Germ Free Adolescents,” “Identity” and “Artificial” are more relevant now than ever.

Paul, what’s your next project?

Sng: It’s another project about a female artist who was marginalized, a woman named Tish Murtha who is not at all well-known. Again, I am working with her daughter. It’s very different from Poly and Celeste’s story. I’m about to start editing it when we get some money. With independent documentaries, it’s always difficult to fund these things, particularly in the U.K.

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