A New Documentary Explores the Legacy of Poly Styrene, Punk Pioneer and Fashion Renegade

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In 2016, five years after the death of Poly Styrene—the punk legend and trailblazing frontwoman of the short-lived but fiercely beloved band X-Ray Spex—her daughter, Celeste Bell, finally received the stacks of boxes from Styrene’s former manager that made up her archive. “It was mostly my mother’s visual artwork and poems and diary entries,” Bell remembers. “But really, that archive was the genesis of everything.”

By “everything,” Bell means the ongoing project she’s undertaken since that year to celebrate her mother’s extraordinary legacy. First, there was the 2019 book she edited with music writer Zoë Howe, titled Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story; and now there’s the documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, codirected with filmmaker Paul Sng and released in select theaters today. “I didn’t realize how significant it was until I started to actually organize it and put everything together and approach it from a historical perspective,” Bell continues. “The book came first, but the film made sense because there was just so much rich visual material.”

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The film is a riotous ode to a musician who broke barriers in more ways than one. Yes, there’s her enduring legacy as a musician, with a lineup of icons from an impressive range of genres—Neneh Cherry, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and even fashion designer Vivienne Westwood—extolling the importance of Styrene within the punk movement and her influence on their own sound. “We did want to do something much more cinematic and poetic and maybe unconventional, fitting in with my mother’s personality and what she was about,” says Bell of the decision to have them figure as voiceovers, with Styrene’s diaries narrated by the Oscar-nominated actor Ruth Negga. “I think it was the right choice.”

Besides getting to hear from those who knew Styrene either before Bell was born or during the years when they were estranged, in creating the film Bell also validated her belief that her mother was a true pioneer. “You just feel this enormous sense of pride and gratitude that there’s so much goodwill and that there are so many people who have such lovely things to say about my mom. I’m sure there were some people who thought she was a nightmare—and she was a nightmare, I know that,” Bell adds, laughing. “But the fact that, even as difficult as she could be and as creative people often are, there was just such an outpouring of love from the people that we interviewed was amazing.”

Styrene’s story is also timely for how she navigated challenges within the music industry that have never gone away, from racism and misogyny to the way she was later sidelined and belittled as a result of her struggles with mental health. Emerging during the political turbulence of Thatcher-era Britain, when the working class was widely demonized by both politicians and the media, Styrene wore her status as a self-described “ordinary tough kid from an ordinary tough street” as a badge of pride. “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard / But I think, ‘Oh bondage, up yours!’” she sang with proto-riot-grrrl ferocity on her most famous hit, the explosive “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” from 1977. The track may clock in at just 2 minutes and 45 seconds, but four decades later her defiant attitude feels as relevant as ever.



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