Film review – Polystyrene: I am a cliché

Poly Styrene was many things to many people: expressive fashionista, gifted poet and lyricist, passionate vocalist, and black, female, punk rock icon.   A complex, multifaceted individual, she possessed rare insight and phenomenal creativity.  Poly Styrene: I am a cliché touches on all of these parts of Poly, as one would hope, but at its core, this is a story of the relationship between a mother and a daughter.  And it’s a story that not only grabbed my attention but punched at my heart. 

Directed by Paul Sng and Celeste Bell (Poly’s daughter), this film is a beautifully balanced blending of original footage and previously unseen, as well as familiar, archive material.  Using the voices, not faces, of more or less famous types, to punctuate the narrative with testimonials, was a wise directorial decision.  Rather than being abruptly yanked out of the story, we imagine the speaker standing with Poly, in the relevant time and space. Much as I like Jonathon Ross, his fizzog appearing ½ way through the film would have jolted me right out of the narrative.

This is no two-dimensional look-back at the enigma that was Poly Styrene.  It’s a poignant exploration of the life of Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, as seen through the eyes of her daughter Celeste, where the character of Poly Styrene is a supporting actor, rather than the lead.  For Celeste, Poly was a story her mother told. 

Marianne was a young woman of dual heritage in a white male industry.  One would think this would be enough of a challenge.  But as Celeste’s story unfolds, a picture of Marianne forms which is at once profoundly complex, profoundly inspiring and profoundly tragic.

As Celeste notes, her mother was an obsessively creative observer, voraciously consuming the news and converting what she discovered into simple yet phenomenally powerful lyrics.  Marianne was a great songwriter, but listen to her lyrics and you hear concise, precise, almost prophetic, social commentary. Before the majority had even contemplated the environmental impacts of rampant commercialism, she saw clearly how we were destroying the natural world.  The lyrics of ‘The day the world turned day-glo’ depict a dystopian plastic future where nature has been replaced entirely by the synthetic:

“The X-rays were penetrating through the latex breeze
Synthetic fibre see-thru leaves fell from the rayon trees”

Marianne was also an intensely sensitive and unprotected empath. She was greatly affected by the energies of others, but trapped in a cycle of fame and performance, with no opportunity to ground herself, she became overwhelmed and was finally committed to a mental institution. 

As a passionate anti-psychiatrist, I could go into an unfettered diatribe about the evils of psychiatry and how the labelling of Marianne’s experience as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder did very little to help her understand herself or those around her.  But I won’t.  I will however note how thoughtfully Sng and Bell address her struggles with mental health.  As Celeste noted in a post-film Q&A, Marianne didn’t feel she had a mental illness, she felt she was afflicted by psychic trauma. Celeste was particularly keen to make space for the notion that a pathologised view of Marianne is not the only viable one. Marianne walked in two worlds, attempting to balance her need for connection to nature with the plastic side of life.  This duality of purpose can be seen as bipolar disorder.  It can also be seen as an archaic shamanic ability.

Watching the film, it’s easy to see Marianne as a tragic Cassandra figure, cursed to utter true prophecies through the voice of Poly Styrene, never to be believed.  But this is a greater, deeper, more human tale by far. In watching Poly Styrene: I am a cliché,  we travel together with Celeste, on her quest to discover her mother.  Opening with ‘Germ free adolescent’, and ending with Poly’s return to the stage with Generation Indigo, it’s an intimate journey of grief, realisation, confusion, anger, peril, frustration, understanding and finally, love.  

Review by Aitch Nicol

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