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Poly Styrene "The film portrays Poly as a complex woman, but because we come from a place of love for her, we're able to explore the darker sections of her life."

I Am A Cliché is an emotional bio-doc of Poly Styrene, the original trailblazing germ-free adolescent.

00 PSIAAC OFFICIAL STILL 3 Credit BBC Arena jpg

Poly Styrene in 1979.

BBC Arena.

I Am A Cliché is a feature-length documentary charting the life of trailblazing 1970s X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene.

Sourced from archives discovered by Poly's daughter Celeste, the film explores the sturm-und-drang of their relationship, as well as Poly's well-documented mental health issues (she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, later determined as acute bipolar disorder).

With the first woman of colour (Poly was born to Somali–British parents) to front a rock band, X-Ray Spex surfed a 1970s wave of success with successful singles ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’ and ‘Germ Free Adolescent’.

Now Then caught up with the documentary's producer Rebecca Mark-Lawson to talk about the film, what elements of Poly's life attracted her to the project, and why it was important to celebrate Poly's cultural legacy.

How did the idea of making a film using Celeste's archive material come about?

Paul [Sng, co-director] and Celeste came to a screening of mine at the London Film Festival, and we met up and chatted. I'd just made a film called Irene's Ghost which was about a son's search to find out about the mother he never knew, so within that context Celeste spoke to me about her mother, Poly.

When you're looking at something like this, it's a film producer's gift really, coming with an amazing archive, especially with Celeste being Poly's daughter and having access to her estate and all of her music. That said, we still had to get approval from the record company.

Usually that's the biggest issue for a filmmaker – lack of access to the artist's music, so it was great that through Celeste we could do that.

Celeste of course had all the material readily available.

That's right – they'd already completed a succession of great interviews with those you see in the film, so they needed someone to pull it all together. What they had was for a typical band-type documentary. What I was interested in was pushing the film into understanding more of the mother–daughter relationship as well – I wanted to give it another dimension.

What innovative thinking was the motivation for adopting the approach you took to the film?

I liked Paul and Celeste's approach – they wanted the film to be made in a very different, experimental way. There are no talking heads in the film for example, they'd recorded the interviews as audio only – which was a challenge, but different. The themes around identity, race, sexuality and mental health were all really strong things as a film producer to be mining.

I remember well an advert for ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’ from when I was a regular buyer of the NME in the 1970s. It was seen then as an anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist song. Is that how you see it now?

Yes, there are lots of layers to her writing, which is one of the interesting things about Poly – her music can be understood in many different ways. There's an interview with Poly in the film about that song and what it means where she talks about a range of forms of bondage: misogyny and racism for example.

We've also referenced some of her diaries which say that when she was inspired to write the song she was thinking about things such as her father, slavery – lots of different things.

Today Poly would be bracketed with artists such as Kae Tempest wouldn't she?

Yes, I think that's true. If you think of what happened later in her career when the band broke up and she wanted to make a solo album, there was little interest. The record companies just wanted pop hits, whereas today you'd be able to self-publish and continue an independent career. Poly also had roots in reggae – her first song ‘Silly Billy’ was great – sadly we didn't have room for it in the film!

Don Letts and Bruno Wizard both feature in the film. Did any of their recollections differ from Celeste's?

Yes, a lot, how long have you got! We had hours of footage and amazing insights. We had to focus on the story we wanted to put out, so to portray someone's whole life in a film is difficult. There's a scene in the film where Poly, some members of the Sex Pistols and Don Letts were hanging out at a time when Poly was having a nervous breakdown. Don admits that his treatment of her back then wasn't great – he admits it, saying we could have done more and could have been nicer.

Celeste knew Poly as her mum. It was only when she got older and looked at the archives that she understood how significant and revered by her friends and associates she was, and was able to fill in the gaps.

00 PSIAAC OFFICIAL STILL 1 Credit Poly Doc Ltd

Poly's daughter Celeste in I Am a Cliché.

Poly Doc Ltd.

There's a great interview with Poly's sister who revealed a lot about her as a person aside from being a pop star. I think Celeste kind of already knew about the various aspects of Poly's character.

The angle you were coming from was very much based on the love and affection held for Poly then?

Yes, the film portrays Poly as a complex character, which she was. She was a complex woman, but because we do it from a place of love we're able to go into the darker sections of Poly's personality where she might not always have been a good mum. Celeste wanted to go there, and we created the space for her to do that and include that in the film as well.

Poly's mental health issues must have had an impact on Celeste's upbringing. How did you want that to come across?

We did talk to a psychologist for research purposes, but primarily we had long discussions with Celeste about how we would portray Poly's mental health. It's a big part of Celeste's life. Her mother being ill had a major impact on her upbringing and broke their relationship completely at one point. A lot of people didn't know about that aspect of Poly's life, and a lot of the music press were quite horrible about her. The fact Poly comes from a bi-racial background and the problems associated with dual heritage were things we wanted to highlight.

Celeste seemed to have quite a difficult childhood, how did Poly’s mental health effect their relationship?

Celeste was very angry as a teenager and just wanted a normal mum. It caused a rift between her and her mum for a while. She eventually came to terms with it and spent the last few years of her mum's life with her trying to make the most of their relationship, but at the time, as a child, she found it difficult to forgive her mum. Making the film has helped Celeste come to terms with her relationship.

She realised how big and unknown Poly's legacy was, and she wanted to tell the world about her. It's Celeste's legacy, a thankyou to her mum, saying you are seen and are acknowledged.

It must have been difficult to unpick all of those elements of her life both personally and publicly.

Yes. Celeste told me that she packaged everything – material, her mum's ashes, everything – in a box because she couldn't deal with it. At the beginning of the film Celeste opens the box, and this inspires her to tell her story and get other people involved to speak of her mother.

Poly was the first woman of colour to front a major rock band – were you conscious of highlighting that?

For sure. We wanted to build up a picture of Poly being an inspiration and an icon for other women of colour in the music business to look up to. There were lots of interviews that didn't make the cut about how proud they were of her and her influence. Neneh Cherry said she started singing because of Poly, which is an incredible thing to say.

There's a whole new movement of afro-punk, especially in the US where the film has gone down really well. We did a lot of screenings with the Somali community in London – they were sold out as young Somali women were seeing Poly as a pop star, and someone they could aspire to be.

Learn more

You can watch I Am A Cliché on a number of platforms.

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