Seen at the Sydney Underground Film Festival
After the gut-punch of a documentary with Lydia Lunch, it feels right to wash it down with a documentary about another performer that broke boundaries in her own unique way. The idea of course was to try and watch something that was a little lighter and maybe a little easier to take on… stupid me forgetting that the Sydney Underground Film Festival thrives on really just fucking with the audience. So, time to talk about Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché tells the tumultuous life story of the lead singer of the punk rock band X-Ray Spex, the first woman of colour to be the leader of a successful rock band. Told from the point of view of Poly’s daughter, Celeste Bell, the documentary covers everything from Poly’s youth to her forming the band to her mental health diagnoses and everything else in between.
Throw Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché on the pile of films that will make music historians truly happy as another influential but underrated performer is given a chance to shine in a way that really brings out just how important they were to the art form that made them famous. Throughout the film, you truly get a sense of how groundbreaking Poly Styrene was, just by her very presence as a woman of colour in punk rock back in the late 70s she was a trailblazer. That undeniable fact is well represented with every passing moment of footage we’re treated to.
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché does the standard trick of combining interviews with archival footage in order to fully tell the story, but this one mixes it up a little by only letting us hear the interviewees but never showing them. The only new footage that is made for this documentary are insert shots of Celeste looking through diaries and old memorabilia, which makes for a sweet way to connect the two of them visually and gives the film a definitive point of view that carries throughout the entire film.
One slight downside to this lack of new footage is Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché ends up largely making the archival photos and imagery feel like filler, almost giving the film more of an audiobook quality than an actual film. It’s still really good, but it’s hard to feel as compelled to just watch the screen when there’s very little visual information going on.
It also creates this repeated problem where we’ll only hear the voices of the interviewees and thus the film needs to repeatedly remind us who is talking with their name at the bottom of the screen… a screen that we’re not encouraged to look at thanks to how the archival footage is used. The visual and the audio just don’t feel like they need each other.
That being said though, the story being told is compelling enough that even if you aren’t staring at the screen, you certainly aren’t able to ignore what’s being told. Every moment of Poly’s life is laid bare, with enough care to protect her but enough honesty to show every moment in the brightest light possible. It’s a powerful and important story that touches on the racism, sexism and ableism that Poly had to deal with in her trailblazing role.
While there are some rough edges (which feels appropriate for a documentary about a punk rock icon), Poly Styrene: I Am Not A Cliché is a fascinating look at a woman who should be much more well known, indeed she should be one of the first big names brought up whenever the Punk movement is mentioned by anyone. Even if you just listen to the story, it’s a tale that’s hard not to be fascinated by.