Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché review – a powerful portrait of a punk icon

As a woman of colour fronting a punk band in ‘70s Britain, Poly Styrene was contesting the norm from the word go. But as this wonderfully told documentary testifies, her legacy goes far beyond this. I Am A Cliché, co-directed and written by the late punk star’s daughter Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, dives deep into her life and the myriad of reasons why Styrene will go down in history as a source of inspiration for all. 

Courtesy of Modern Films

The documentary manages to balance fascinating records of the star, complete with evocative archive footage and interviews, with more contemplative and solemn words from the singer’s daughter. Bell’s words are so reflective that they veer towards poetry, a nod perhaps to her mother’s own poetic talents, which the film takes care to showcase in all their detail. This chronicle of Styrene’s career does not shy away from her struggles and low points, but is careful to place greater emphasis on her achievements and influence. The plethora of figures interviewed as part of the film points to what a profound impact Styrene had on the world of rock for women but also, as is mentioned several times, for anybody feeling like an outsider.

The narrative ties Styrene’s mixed race heritage into her embrace of the punk genre and the way she uses music to assert her identity. Her words and creative products pinch with unyielding relevance even now, her works carefully curated to be as resonant with modern audiences as they were with contemporary listeners. The highs and lows of her story transport you into her world, complete with bright lights, societal upheaval and the seismic rise of punk.

Courtesy of Modern Films

I Am A Cliché captures a complex, talented person whose humbleness in front of the camera defies her power and magnetism on stage. The film allows you to appreciate what a sensational performer Styrene was. The earliest phases of the movie are sparse on photographs and archive footage, a by-product of Bell’s own journey. For while the film is very much about Styrene, Bell shirks objectivity in favour of placing her experience as a daughter at the heart of the film’s structure. It strikes a unique emotional chord, Bell’s at times difficult relationship with her mother given as the reason for an initial reluctance to consult old photos and gig pamphlets. Such personal involvement is handled with grace and bravery, and does the additional favour of humanising Styrene further than ever. She is far more than an interesting but ultimately depersonalised footnote in music history, as this film so memorably demonstrates.

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché mixes the personal with the historical to produce a documentary of profound impact and style. While the timeline is not always obvious, the depth of this profile beggars belief. Styrene’s music and the way she forever transformed the future for women in the industry are achievements that deserve to be celebrated. It is an additional wonder that such a celebration takes the form of a nuanced, detailed and delicate film, a fitting way to tell the story of a woman who tore down and rewrote the standards of entertainment.

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché premieres February 27th at Glasgow Film Festival, and will release in virtual cinemas March 5th. 

James Hanton

James is a contributor to Outtake, Starburst Magazine and The Wee Review. He is also the former Editor-in-Chief of The Student, the oldest student newspaper in the UK. A recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh, James is looking for paid writing gigs so he doesn't fall into the endless abyss of graduate unemployment. He can be contacted at: jhantonwriter@gmail.com