While Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché is a sensitive expression of one of punk’s most idiosyncratic figures, it mostly ends up feeling standard and disconnected.
Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché is clearly a labor of love. Centered around Poly Styrene, the legendary frontwoman for the British punk band X-Ray Spex, the film is co-directed by Syrene’s own daughter, Celeste Bell. After the death of her mother in 2011, Bell discovered a trove of poems, artwork, and diary entries that Styrene had created during her lifetime. Spurred on by these findings, Bell set out to unearth her mother’s legacy and share her story with others. I am a Cliché is a realization of this, a comprehensive exploration of all facets of Styrene’s life that unfortunately does not live up to her idiosyncrasy.
Styrene was raised in London, living with her mom and siblings. The film details her experience growing up biracial, with feelings of not belonging to any group. We witness Styrene’s life unfold before us, see her success rising as the frontwoman for X-Ray Spex at only 19 years old and feel her disillusionment and anxiety grow when she travels to New York to play. There are some narrative threads introduced that don’t really go anywhere, such as the fling Styrene had for her manager, and while we hear voice-over from her ex-husband, we never hear her talk about him, which distances us from that aspect of her life.
The film mostly follows Styrene’s life through archival footage, including newsreels and concert videos, although it is intercut with footage of Belle following the steps of her mother’s life. She travels from various homes in England all the way to India, recreating Styrene’s own path. We get the sense of Belle attempting to understand the mother that she was largely estranged from, using this documentary to not only honor Styrene’s legacy, but to connect with the person underneath. However, the jumps between Belle’s journey and the contemporary footage of a young Poly Styrene feel unfocused and messy. These two parts of the documentary don’t feel cohesive, leaving the viewer strangely disconnected from the events themselves. There are also moments where other people are providing voice-overs that are paired with b-roll footage that doesn’t drive the documentary forward or provide interesting visuals. These parts similarly feel unmotivated and detached.
This feeling of disconnection is exacerbated from the voice-over that Belle performs over the course of the film. Unfortunately, her voice lacks charisma and energy, often sounding monotone. A more passionate voice-over would have energized the film, and part of the strange distance one feels from it partly comes from never seeing Belle actually talk. We hear her and see her, but never see the words come out of her mouth. It’s a seemingly small thing but it leaves the viewer feeling removed from Belle and her words, which is a shame given how intimate and honest she is throughout I am a Cliché.
I am a Cliché shines when it focuses on Poly Styrene and her life. She radiates charm and insight, an immediately compelling figure due in part to her unconventional clothing style and cosmic belief system. She is presented to us in all her complexities and intricacies, the film is not afraid of showing us her dark side, her failings, fears, and mistakes. What is proven by I am a Cliché is that Styrene was an extraordinary figure and is vastly underappreciated by history. As one of the forebears of punk, she helped create a sound that would go on to serve as a massive inspiration to the Riot grrrl movement of the 90s as well as Afropunk. That said, the film itself is often too unfocused and detached to make much of an impact or do justice to its trailblazing central figure.