Punk, also called punk rock, is an aggressive form of rock music that coalesced into an international (though predominantly Anglo-American) movement in 1975–80. Often politicized and full of vital energy beneath a sarcastic, hostile facade, punk spread as an ideology and an aesthetic approach, becoming an archetype of teen rebellion and alienation.
The documentary “Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché” looks at the whole scope of a passionate creative genius punk artist who impacted and represented her musical genre like no one else. The artist is Poly Styrene, a mixed race woman, Somalian and white. She sang about being a woman and a minority in songs like “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” and “Identity”. We are guided through Poly Styrene’s life through her daughter Celeste Bell, who serves as the film’s co-director, and the voice of Ruth Negga reading the artist’s words that came from her journals. The two voices of mother and daughter flow into a beautiful symphony.
I felt compelled to write about this film because I’m passionate about how films portray mental illness. Most films do not capture it in the best light, bipolar specifically. In 2019, I wrote a piece about the misrepresentation of women with mental illness on screen. These women were not portrayed cinematically as people, as individuals, but as a cliché. The title of this documentary reflects the tropes these women onscreen were confined within. The cliché that there is always this incoming sense of doom where the woman in the story peaks early in her success before dealing with some kind of mental illness that results either in suicide or life in an institution.
As someone with bipolar, that is the fear: the feeling that even with medication and a healthy balance in one’s day-to-day living, your life will end early or you’ll lose your mind and be put away. Let’s be clear, this is not the reality, but when you see these things on screen, it’s difficult to not have the stigma associated with your illness built into your subconscious. As you can see in this film, that is not the story of Poly Styrene, also known as Marianne Elliott-Said. Her life ended too early, but as Celeste says in the film, she was finding a sense of peace at the end of her life, as well as a place where she could reconnect with her music. She unfortunately died of cancer, but her mental illness is not what ended her life.
That is not to say we don’t see Marianne struggle throughout the film with her mental illness. When we see her manic whirlwind leading her band X-ray Spex from age 19 to 21, she is burnt out and leaves the band while at the top of her game. Those are symptoms of being bipolar: your mania creates an energy that most people don’t have, and then it brings you to an extreme low. It was in my early twenties that I was diagnosed with bipolar. Like Marianne, I was mis-diagnosed, not with (in Poly’s case) schizophrenia, but other diagnoses related to anxiety and depression. My heart went out to her during this stage of her life, because I was similarly dealing with extreme mania followed by depression. But what I love seeing during this time is her energy as Poly Styrene and the creativity she brought to her music. What she sang about really impacted the masses, particularly future generations of women and women of color in music. She is not defined by her illness, but in her creativity and what she brought to the world.
Following this early period of Poly Styrene, I see a woman trying to find herself through her illness when she decides to join Hare Krishna and live on the commune started and funded by the Beatle himself, George Harrison. As a spiritual person myself, I felt if I prayed enough, God would heal that part of my brain that was ill. I no longer believe that anymore. I know that we have all of the tools here on earth, which include a balance of medication and a healthy life. I’m sure Marianne joining Hare Krishna was a way for her to deal with that struggle in her life, and we see that it stays with her until the end, as she asks Celeste to spread her ashes in India. Celeste was profoundly affected from her experience living on the commune with her mother, sometimes positively. But there were times when her mother became manic, dancing around, taking her clothes off and singing. There were also days where she sank into a depression and locked herself in their home.
My partner has taken the time to really understand my mental illness and how he can support me. He is probably one of the few people in my life who has really shown an interest in learning more about that aspect of myself. To the public, I’ve done a great job at hiding that part of myself because of the stigma and the misrepresentation of the illness. I realize now that I’m not defined by that stigma, the cliché that has been misrepresented to the world. Similarly in this documentary, I see Celeste taking the time to really understand her mother, and all the parts of her. It’s a beautiful thing seeing their arc. This documentary is a love letter to Marianne, Poly Styrene, and the impact she left behind.
“Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” is now playing in select theaters and is coming to On Demand everywhere February 4th.