It’s impossible to overstate the importance of a documentary like this nor the significance of women like Poly Styrene. Not that there were or are many women like her. She embodies all that was good and true about punk even as she transcends the label and reconfigures every stereotype, turning them all into ironic critique. As gobby misfit frontperson in the band X-Ray Spex, shy, unprepossessing teenager Marianne Joan Elliot-Said, from Bromley, in Kent, blazed a trail through the tail-end of nineteen seventies British pop culture. Songs such as Germ Free Adolescent, The Day the World Turned Day-Glo, and Oh Bondage, Up Yours! dissected and celebrated the experience of disconnection brought about by conflicting identities – or what today is called intersectionality – and the shopping list of oppressions that was standard practice in 70s Britain. As disposable as the plastic she took her name from, Poly Styrene (“My mind is like a plastic bag”) embodied the artificial, the throwaway, our society’s manmade garbage. As the name of her band suggests, she can see right through you and your fake culture and toxic values. Along with Siouxsie Sioux, she became a beacon of off-beat glamour to the queer little child I was back then, so I thoroughly enjoyed watching this account of her life, narrated by her daughter, Céleste Bell. From baffled child to understanding and appreciative adult, Céleste learns to see her mother for the person, and the cultural figure, that she was. Misfit, outcast, misunderstood and dissatisfied, restless, questioning, always seeking some deeper meaning in her life and in her work. As a mixed race, working-class, unconventional looking girl with braces on her teeth, the odds were stacked against Marianne Elliot ever making it big or having any significant cultural impact
The documentary details the precise force of Poly’s performance and message, her stance against – her rage against – the machine, the commodification of everything in the modern world, including identity. It maps the trajectory of Céleste’s discovery, after her death, of her mum’s cultural importance and iconic status. It details the difficulties of not fitting in and we see a bold, intelligent young Poly slowly lose her confidence in the face of a media focus on her looks, weight, and class. In the London punk scene of the late 70s, where Poly Styrene should have been right at home, treated her as a figure of fun and John Lydon, to his shame, is reported to have locked her in his toilet for an hour. For a laugh. She was too sensitive for that shit, and the juvenile, toxic masculinity that prevailed in the London punk scene. A trip to play gigs in New York left her disillusioned and vulnerable and she told her daughter that someone had drugged her and the ensuing trip dismantled her mentally, left her traumatized and in need of solitude. Like Amy Winehouse, like Britney Spears, Sinead O’Connor, the story of Poly Styrene charts a path that leads from excitement and creative exuberance to exhaustion and depression, or death. The media scrutiny of what she wore and how she looked rather than on what she had to say led to frustration and the fatigue from the endless touring and promotion led to a spell in the Maudsley, where she was diagnosed as having schizophrenia. But what others saw as a breakdown and a derailing of her burgeoning career, Poly Styrene herself saw as a breakthrough, into a higher state of consciousness. She turned to Hari Krishna to make sense of her recent experiences. She traveled, as so many did, to India in search of spiritualism that would always be in conflict with the overt capitalism of the music industry. Including interviews with people who were close to her, together with great footage, present a narrative that is as tragic as it is inspirational, this brilliant documentary is as much for those who know her music and those who are hearing her name for the first time. The cultural archive needs more tales of female, working-class creativity
Available now - online cinema / video-on-demand via Modern Films in UK and Ireland and - streaming / TV
via Sky Arts. USA one-night-only in theaters nationwide on 2/2 followed by an on demand release
on 2/4 & regional screenings via Utopia
Review by Jonathan Kemp
Queerguru London Contributing Editor Jonathan Kemp writes fiction and non-fiction and teaches creative writing at Middlesex University. He is the author of two novels – London Triptych (2010), which won the 2011 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, and Ghosting (2015) – and the short-story collection Twentysix. (2011, all published by Myriad Editions). Non-fiction works include The Penetrated Male (2012) and Homotopia?: Gay Identity, Sameness and the Politics of Desire (2015, both Punctum Books).