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 Celeste Bells faced while crafting “Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché,” a feature-length record about the tumultuous life of her mother, the influential early punk rock artist Poly Styrene.
Poly Styrene has blasted the British punk rock scene like a whirlwind of angry teens, fueled by the creativity and freedom of the music while she confronts racism and discrimination sexism as a mixed black woman. But the glory days did not last. After her pop chart victory, she spent years finding fame by joining the Hare Krishna movement while battling mental illness. Her sudden popularity and challenging years are artfully re-imagined in this week’s documentary opening in select US theaters, co-directed by Bell with the feature film. whether veteran Paul Sng.
Born Marianne Elliot-Said, a groundbreaking musician grew up in London’s harsh Brixton neighborhood. With a Scots-Irish mother and Somali father, she was often ostracized by both black and white children. After practicing ska and reggae and designing clothes, she watched the Sex Pistols perform and a light bulb went out. In 1976, she founded X-Ray Spex – which also initially featured 15-year-old sax player Lora Logic – a female striker punk band years before the Riot Grrrl movement made such groups acceptable. get more. Poly Styrene died of cancer in 2011, at the age of 53.
Bell grew up with a mother unable to create stability, but as an adult, she reconciled her difficult childhood with her desire to preserve her mother’s legacy, creating a book out of stock. archives Poly Styrene, “Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story” as a companion to the movie.
It’s been 10 years since your mother passed away. Why did you decide to make a movie about her now?
Bell Celeste: 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 felt like, oh, there’s so much material here that I don’t even know it. I have underestimated how prolific she is about her art, her poetry, her lyric writing. It became my passion for the next five years.
You start by making a Poly Styrene book with Zoe Howe. Then what happened?
Bell Celeste: We originally wanted to make a coffee table style book with all my mom’s artwork and diary entries. But then it evolved into something more biographical. And right after we started, Zoe introduced me to Paul (Sng). So both film and book projects were done at the same time.
What types of documents are available in the archive?
Bell Celeste: There’s a lot of original art my mom did for X-Ray Spex. She did all the album covers and posters for the band. She designed the logo and merchandise, which is really impressive. There is a vast collection of photos. And the footage, and lots of lyrics and poems that have never been published. And then of course her diary.
Paul Sng: There’s a fair bit of direct performance. We’re really lucky that (X-Ray Spex manager) Falcon Stuart’s widow, Alice Hiller, has a large archive of unreleased material. There were things like the band’s first rehearsal, 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 it. Some of these clips have been seen on “Top of the Pops” or in various interviews, but other footage is amazing to have.
How did you decide to structure the story?
Paul Sng: When me and Celeste and Zoe first met, we talked about how we wanted to do this by choosing 10 very important places in Poly’s life. Then I said to Celeste, would you be willing to write about those situations? Obviously you cannot create a dialogue with someone who is no longer here, but Celeste later wrote these beautiful letters. I get goosebumps, because Celeste is a brilliant writer and she walked away and did it. So she not only tells the story from her point of view, but also at times talks about how her mother feels, because no one can tell this story better than Celeste, and Poly isn’t here. .
What are your thoughts behind the interviews?
Paul Sng: Instead of having the usual dialogue interviews, we just wanted to have a dialogue. Interviews are sometimes directly related to what we are seeing and hearing, but also sometimes more abstract things, especially in the New York part. We always knew it would tell the story in an original way. The people we interview are almost like a chorus that support the central story throughout the film, which is clearly the story of Poly and Celeste.
Bell Celeste: As we made the film, we realized we needed to add another dimension to our original concept. So there are some of my mother’s songs that play a central role in the story, providing the context for the stories. For example, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” and themes around feminism and themes around racial identity. And the term “dayglo” and the themes surrounding capitalism and consumerism. It has been really exciting to work with Paul on these social topics, as Paul’s previous film “Dispossession” is about the social housing crisis. He has really explored these socio-political and economic issues and is very passionate about it. We could really put a lot of social issues into a regular musical documentary, but through the music media and my mom’s lyrics.
You get great interviews with characters like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Does anyone refuse to talk?
Bell Celeste: I think we were able to interview all the people we wanted and they gave great testimonies. For example, (punk professor and music journalist) Vivien Goldman – not only was she there at the time, but she had an academic perspective on the whole period, which is amazing. I think we had too many interviews, not enough, and we must have been pretty ruthless with what we kept.
Paul Sng: The only one we really wanted was John Lydon (Sex Pistols singer), because he was clearly part of that story, and it would be nice if he took on what happened. He said no, but wished us luck.
X-Ray Spex is pretty underground in the US, but in the UK they are very popular. Was this rapid popularity difficult for such a sensitive young woman?
Bell Celeste: You can appreciate how overwhelming the whole experience was, being a vulnerable young woman in a very predatory music industry, especially at the time. There is a sense that she felt exploited fairly early on, not necessarily by her colleagues or contemporaries on the scene, but more by the fame machine. They really have achieved a lot in a very short period of time. I think a lot of people don’t realize X-Ray Spex is a commercial band. In the UK, they were on “Top of the Pops” and in tabloids and all manner of teen magazines. There’s a lot of interest around the band, because my mom is unique and she stands out. They were so young, they stood out from other puns with their bright and colorful visuals, and of course very clever lyrics, my mother’s philosophy. It was a very intense experience for someone who had never experienced 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 see what happened to Britney Spears – not just music, but all industries, creative or not , always leaning towards men.
Where do you think this remarkable creativity comes from in such a young woman?
Bell Celeste: It’s not like my mother comes from an artistic or musical background. She was the family’s first artist. My mother has a very special personality and character. She is completely unique, completely an individual. She had this very early on and the dark side of it was the mental health issues she suffered throughout her life. From an early age, she really began to show signs of struggling with this bipolar disorder. But it was clear that it gave her a 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 changing at lightning speed. It was the first time that children like my mother, who came from a working class background, without going through art school, were really able to access the art world, the creativity that was limited before that time in Vietnam. to a large extent.
How has the racism she faced growing up influenced her music?
Bell Celeste: In the lyrics, she’s clearly addressing these themes – like “Warrior in Woolworths”, for example. And then in addition to music, in poetry. Many of the poems that I have come across focus on this theme. It was a lifelong struggle that my mother struggled with in terms of her own personal sense of who she was, finding a sense of belonging or lack of belonging. I 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 are not your body and you are like that soul soul, that’s what they said.
When you are young there is always a need to belong. When you don’t fit into both camps, when you’re two races, it’s tough. You’re not white working class, but you’re not necessarily accepted by black kids. She really has an outsider’s lens on the world, and that makes her art amazing in so many ways.
What was it like performing with her on stage?
Bell Celeste: It was the first gig I ever played with my band! So it’s all quite new and overwhelming, because it’s a huge audience. It’s touching. It was just a very joyful, energetic memory that has been implanted in my memory forever. It affects everyone who views it.
How do you deal with growing up with a mother who wasn’t always able to nurture you thoughtfully but is now the custodian of her legacy?
Bell Celeste: It’s hard to reconcile, isn’t it? I think maybe it was because she was sick and knowing that I was going to lose her, that’s when I could cherish her the most. All the tensions and conflicts we might have had are gone, haven’t they? And the moments are really tough. So it’s been a life trying to cope with everything. But in the end we parted as great friends.
What’s next for you? Is there a companion exhibit to the film?
Bell Celeste: I want to bring the show to the United States and I’m talking to people that I can do it on the West Coast, and maybe in Las Vegas, New York. I am also working on separate, albeit continuation, film projects on themes of the Hari Krishna movement. That’s something I’d like to explore more deeply in the future.
“Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche” will also be available on digital platforms including iTunes, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, Redbox, Xbox, and on demand.
https://variety.com/2022/film/news/poly-styrene-i-am-a-cliche-daughter-celeste-bell-1235165151/ Poly Styrene: I’m a Cliche Director Into Her Mom’s Life