For this week's film club, Maxwell Tait looks at Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, a new documentary in which Celeste Bell reflects on the challenges overcome by her mother, the peerless punk-rocker Poly Styrene. That, plus Alice Coltrane & Nico Icon, two more films about hugely influential musicians of the 20th century who, frankly, put up with a lot of shit.
“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard”
It’s been ten years since Marianne Joan Elliott-Said AKA Poly Styrene passed away at the age of 53. Few musicians can be said to have a more profound legacy than the founder and frontwoman of X-Ray Spex. Mixed race, braces, striking home-made clothes, a woman — it’s hardly a surprise that Poly achieved the difficult thing of standing out during the Punk era, amongst people that already stood out, though not so much amongst eachother. Listing characteristics — or labels — like this may seem contrary to what she stood for, but Poly had a capacity to celebrate her individuality without ego. Poly took ownership of what made her her, in a way that didn’t push people down, but lifted others up, and that was and is an everlasting inspiration to so many.
Well, as much ownership as is possible for a mixed-race woman in the UK. Poly was uniquely sincere, and tragically, her openness left her vulnerable to a great deal of unpleasantness from all sides. The last thing the world needs is an exploitative documentary about someone who’s mental health was prey to exploitation, and that’s why it’s so important that Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché gets things right.
We go from Poly’s Brixton upbringing to riding the crest of Punk. X-Ray Spex were absolutely massive. It is equal parts hilarious and unnerving imagining Richard Branson desperately trying to sign the band to Virgin Records: “He was really, really keen,” recounts bassist Paul Dean. We’re shown chaotic shows at the Roxy and CBGBs, through to Poly’s exit from the band, joining the Hare Krishna movement, and her tragic breast cancer diagnosis. I Am A Cliché covers the key moments of Poly’s life, and crucially, all the while openly discussing how events impacted on her, how she was feeling. If discourse around mental health this week has taught us anything, it’s that you never know what someone else is going through, and you should always give someone the benefit of the doubt. Poly wasn’t afforded this when she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, when actually suffering from acute bipolar disorder.
Co-directed by Paul Sng and Celeste Bell — Poly’s daughter — Sng acknowledges that it became clear early on that they weren’t aiming for a typical biography of Poly, instead focusing on the lesser-known story of Poly and Celeste. In doing so, we get a poetic, reflective account of Poly from Bell, who is the first to admit that creative people don’t necessarily make the best parents.
Early on in the film, Bell reflects on her mother’s passing. She wasn’t ready to be the ‘caretaker of Poly Styrene’s legacy’, because she’d just lost her mum. Rhoda Dakar, Lora Logic, Ana Da Silva, Poly’s sister Hazel Emmons; lots of perceptive people speak candidly about their experience of Poly and her sheer inspirational power. But framing all of this through Bell’s honest perspective allows the film to celebrate Poly without fetishising her. We see Bell going through photos of her mum, and studying her art. Watching Bell reconcile what the world saw as Poly with who she saw as her mum gives the documentary humanity and grounding.
Even if you don’t immediately watch Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché after reading this, promise me one thing: that you will queue up some Poly Styrene tunes tonight. You’ll find yourself angry and confused that her first solo album, 1980’s ‘Translucence’, led to her being dropped from EMI. It is an exceptional, hard to define album, critically maligned seemingly because at the young age of 22, Poly had the maturity to realise that Punk had nothing left to offer her.
And nearly fifty years on, X-Ray Spex remain the architects of possibly the most rousing music you will ever hear. ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!’ knocks me out every single time. It is a nuclear explosion at the anthem factory, and apparently still a controversial enough song title that Google pretends not to know what you’re talking about when you search for it. Rachel Aggs of Trash Kit defines Poly Styrene’s enduring call to arms perfectly: “Her inspiring story encapsulates what should be the legacy of punk: not simply spiky rebelliousness, but a self-aware sensitivity to the world that can help shape how we navigate the music industry and our lives as a whole.”
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is screening on Sky Arts, and is available to rent via a number of local cinemas through the Modern Films website. Find your nearest and support local independent businesses.
Alice Coltrane (Bourne, 1970)
St. Clair Bourne’s documentary segment on Alice Coltrane, featured in the National Educational Television show Black Journal in 1970, is 17 blissful minutes. Produced by William Greaves, best known for landmark experimental documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, the short film welcomes us into the home of the pioneering musician, three years after husband John lost his life to liver cancer at the age of 40.
Over the years that followed, Alice would release a number of albums through Impulse! Records — most notably ‘Infinity’ and ‘Cosmic Music’, shortly after this documentary— on which John’s final recordings were posthumously set to stunningly orchestrated backgrounds, interpreted by the woman that knew him better than anyone. They are properly gorgeous things, and clearly an unfathomable amount of love has gone into them. Rather predictably, these albums were met with criticism from purists, and came to be considered controversial for their ‘re-imagining’ of the original recordings. It’s such hard work thinking about these people struggling so much with the fact that one of the all-time great musicians was married to another all-time great musician. I won’t allow such opinions too much word-space, but it’s probably a very similar kind of person to those that got annoyed about an all-female Ghostbusters reboot.
So, Bourne’s documentary does exactly what someone watching fifty years later is crying out for. We see her with her four children. We watch her play the harp, and feel very lucky to be given the privilege. Alice explains her deep, spiritual connection with John, and what it means when she plays his music — “I don’t feel that I can contribute to anything he did musically … but I share in the things he developed and produced.” We watch a concert where she performs ‘Africa’ with Pharaoh Sanders, Reggie Workman, Bill Wood, Rashied Ali, and Alice talks about how glad she is to see so many children in the crowd. It’s so refreshing to hear her speak at length about how she felt, almost completely uninterrupted; evidence of a filmmaker really caring about their subject. You know it’s been a great documentary when it ends like a children’s TV show, with Alice and her children waving goodbye to the camera as it closes the gate and drives away.
Alice Coltrane (Black Journal segment) is available to stream for free on the National Museum of African American History & Culture website.
Nico Icon (Ofteringer, 1996)
I’ve watched this one so you don’t have to. That’s a note I wrote halfway through Nico Icon, a documentary that within 5 minutes has managed to call the singer and Velvet Underground collaborator a freak. Halfway through and I make it five times that the worst kind of talking-head hangers-on have made reference to her ‘pure beauty’, including one who underneath his name is simply referred to as a ‘bohemian’.
You might be able to argue that the documentary hasn’t aged well, perhaps pointing to the intertitle typeface that gives the film a remarkable ’10-year-old’s first YouTube lyric video made with Windows Movie Maker’ aesthetic, without that distinctive shade of blue in the background. But in a way it has, managing to unwittingly give evidence of the sort of problems that Nico faced in her career. Words like sculpture and goddess keep coming up, as well as repeated reference to her ‘purity’. “At eleven she was already a young lady”, says her well meaning Aunt. There’s a tabloid obsession with her drug use. Normally saved for the second act of a documentary, we dive straight into it. Even if it was an important factor in her life, it is perverse to gossip about her supposedly bearing track-marks with pride in the first ten minutes.
Out of nowhere appears Ethiopan-Greek director Nikos Papatakis (Thanos and Despina), who reveals that Nico, born Christa Päffgen, took her stage name from him — he provides some respite. There is testimony given by Alain Delon’s mother, Édith Arnold. After an affair with Delon, Nico gave birth to son Ari. Arnold claims she was given an ultimatum by her son’s agent, to choose between him or her Grandson, who even now Delon does not recognise as his son. It’s clear that Arnold took a great deal of emotional weight on her shoulders. Nico’s band-member James Young is asked why he’s written a book about her life, he opens his answer with “well, money.” It tells you everything you need to know. In a documentary exploring Nico's depression, no one can see the wood for the trees.
Nico Icon is on YouTube.