How do you make a documentary about your own mother? And how do you tell that story when you grew up in an unstable environment, with a fractured relationship? That’s the challenge that Celeste Bell faced when crafting “Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché,” a feature-length record of the tumultuous life of her mother, influential early punk rocker Poly Styrene.
Poly Styrene blazed onto Britain’s punk rock scene as an angry teenage cyclone, energized by the creativity and freedom of the music while she confronted racism and sexism as a mixed-race Black woman. But the glory days didn’t last long. After her triumphant entry onto the pop charts, she spent years seeking refuge from fame by joining the Hare Krishna movement while battling mental illness. Her sudden fame and challenging later years are artfully brought to life in the documentary that opens in selected U.S. theaters this week, co-directed by Bell with documentary veteran Paul Sng. Ruth Negga narrates the film along with Bell, with an uncanny rendition of Poly Styrene’s speaking voice.
Born Marianne Elliot-Said, the groundbreaking musician grew up in London’s tough Brixton neighborhood. Having a Scottish-Irish mother and a Somali father, she was often ostracized by both Black and white kids. After dabbling in ska and reggae singing and designing clothes, she saw the Sex Pistols perform and a lightbulb went off. In 1976, she formed X-Ray Spex — which also originally featured 15-year old sax player Lora Logic — a formative female-fronted punk band many years before the Riot Grrrl movement made such groups more acceptable. Poly Styrene died of cancer in 2011, at 53 years old.
Bell grew up with a mother who wasn’t able to provide stability, but in adulthood she’s reconciled her difficult childhood with the desire to preserve her mother’s legacy, creating a book from the Poly Styrene archives, “Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story” as a companion to the film.
It’s been 10 years since your mother passed. Why did you decide to make a film about her now?
Celeste Bell: One day I decided, now is the time. Enough time has passed and I have to really deal with this. And that just started the whole journey. It wasn’t until I went through the archive properly that I was just like, wow, there’s so much material here that I wasn’t even aware of. I’d underestimated how prolific she was in terms of her artistry, her poetry, her lyric writing. It became my passion for the next five years.
You started out by doing a Poly Styrene book with Zoe Howe. Then what happened?
Celeste Bell: We originally wanted to do a coffee table style book with all my mom’s artwork and diary entries. But then that developed into something more biographical. And soon after we started, Zoe introduced me to Paul (Sng). So the film and book project were both happening at the same time.
What kind of material was available in the archive?
Celeste Bell: There was a lot of original artwork that my mom had done for X-Ray Spex. She did all the album covers and posters for the band. She designed the logo and the merchandise, which was really impressive. There was a vast treasure trove of photographs as well. And film footage, and lots and lots of lyrics and poems that had never been published. And then of course her diary.
Paul Sng: There was a fair bit out there in terms of live performance. We were really fortunate that (X-Ray Spex manager) Falcon Stuart’s widow, Alice Hiller, had an archive of largely unreleased material. There was stuff like early band rehearsals, when Lora Logic was still in the band, and candid moments that no one had ever seen. So Alice very generously allowed us to use that. Some of these clips had already been seen on “Top of the Pops” or in various interviews, but that other footage was just amazing to have.
How did you decide to structure the story?
Paul Sng: When Celeste and Zoe and I first met, we spoke about how what we wanted to do was choose maybe 10 locations that were very important in Poly’s life. Then I said to Celeste, would you be willing to write letters about those situations? Obviously you can’t create a dialogue with someone who’s no longer here, but Celeste then wrote these beautiful letters. I get goosebumps, because Celeste is a brilliant writer and she went away and did that. So she’s not only narrating the story from her perspective, but at some moments talking about how her mom felt, because no one can tell this story better than Celeste, and Poly’s not here.
What was your thinking behind the interviews?
Paul Sng: Rather than have the usual talking head interviews, we wanted to have just dialogue. The interviews are sometimes related directly to what we are seeing and hearing, but also sometimes things that are more abstract, particularly in the New York section. We always knew that it was going to tell the story in an original way. The people that we interviewed were almost like a chorus supporting the central narrative that runs through the film, which is obviously Poly’s story and Celeste’s.
Celeste Bell: As we were making the film, we realized we needed to add another dimension to our original concept. So there are some songs of my mother’s that play a central role in the narrative, providing the context to the stories. For example, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” and the themes around feminism and themes around racial identity. And the term “dayglo” and the themes around capitalism and consumerism. It was really interesting working with Paul on these social themes, because Paul’s previous film “Dispossession” was about the social housing crisis. He was really exploring these social political and economic issues and was passionate about that. We were able actually bring in a lot of social issues into what could have been a conventional music documentary, but through the media of music and my mother’s lyrics.
You have great interviews with figures like Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Did anyone decline to talk?
Celeste Bell: I think we were able to interview everyone that we wanted and they gave fantastic testimonies. For instance, (professor of punk and music journalist) Vivien Goldman — not only was she there at the time, but she has an academic perspective on the whole period, which was wonderful. I think we had too many interviews rather than not enough and we had to be quite ruthless with what we kept.
Paul Sng: The only one we really would’ve loved to have got was (Sex Pistols singer) John Lydon, because obviously he’s part of that story, and it would have been good to have his take on what happened. He said no, but wished us luck.
X-Ray Spex were quite underground in the U.S., but in the U.K. they were very well known. Was this quick rise to fame difficult for such a sensitive young woman?
Celeste Bell: You get a good sense of how overwhelming the whole experience was, being a vulnerable young woman in a very predatory music industry, especially at that time. There was a sense that she felt exploited from from quite early on, not necessarily by her peers or contemporaries on the scene, but more by the the machine of fame. They actually had a lot of success in a very short period of time. I think a lot of people don’t realize X-Ray Spex were quite a commercial band. In the U.K., they were on “Top of the Pops” and in the tabloid newspapers and all the teen magazines. There was a lot of interest around the band, because my mom was so unique and she stood out so much. They were very young, they stood out from the other punks with their very colorful and vibrant image, and then of course my mother’s very intelligent, philosophical lyrics. It was a very intense experience for someone who had no previous experience with that lifestyle or that environment.
Paul Sng: Not much has changed. When you look at music, and you look at what happened to Amy Winehouse, you look what happens to Britney Spears — not just music, but all industries, creative or not, are always in favor of men.
Where do you think this tremendous surge of creativity came from in such a young woman?
Celeste Bell: It’s not like my mother came from an artistic or musical background. She was the first artist of the family. My mother had a very special character and personality. She was absolutely unique, absolutely an individual. She had this in her from a very early age and the dark side of that was the mental health issues that she suffered throughout her life. From a young age, she actually started to to show signs of this struggle with bipolar disorder. But then that obviously gave her this huge amount of creative energy. It was also a very special time when my mother was growing up in London. She was a child in the ’60s, when society was just changing at lightning speed. It was the first time that kids like my mom, who came from working class backgrounds, who hadn’t gone to art school, were actually able to access this artistic, creative world that had been off limits before that period to a large extent.
How did the racism she faced growing up figure into her music?
Celeste Bell: In the lyrics, she’s clearly dealing with these themes — ”Warrior in Woolworths,” for example. And then apart from music, in poetry. A lot of the poems that I came across were focused on this theme. It was a lifelong struggle that my mother had to contend with in terms of her own personal sense of who she was, finding a sense of belonging or a lack of belonging. I do think that’s probably one of the reasons why she joined the Hari Krishna movement later on. Because the whole philosophy of the Krishnas at the time was that you’re not your body and you’re like that spirit soul, that’s what they say.
There is always a need when you’re younger to want to belong. When you don’t fit into either camp, when you are biracial, it’s difficult. You’re not part of the white working class, but then you’re not necessarily accepted by the Black kids. She really had an outsider’s lens on the world, and it made her art so great in many ways.
What was it like performing with her onstage?
Celeste Bell: That was the first gig that I ever played with my band! So it was all quite new and overwhelming, because it was a huge audience. It was so it was just so touching. It was just a very joyful, energetic memory that’s implanted in my memory for forever. It affects everyone who watches it.
How do you deal with having grown up with a mother who wasn’t always able to capably parent you with now being the keeper of her legacy?
Celeste Bell: It’s difficult to reconcile, isn’t it? I think it was probably her getting sick and knowing that I was going to lose her, that’s when I could appreciate her the most. All of those tensions and conflicts that we may have had sort of melt away, don’t they? And those really difficult moments. So it was a lifetime of trying to come to terms with all sorts of things. But in the end we parted as great friends.
What’s next for you? There’s a companion exhibition to the film?
Celeste Bell: I’d love to bring the exhibition to the States and I’m talking to people that I can do that with on the West Coast, and maybe also in Las Vegas, in New York. I’m also working on film projects that are separate, though also sort of a continuation, in terms of the themes of the Hari Krishna movement. That’s something I’m keen to explore more deeply in the future.
“Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche” will be also available on digital platforms including iTunes, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, Redbox, Xbox and on demand.