Review by Sean Boelman
It’s hard to make a documentary about a punk icon because filmmakers must be careful to not stick to the tropes too heavily, as that would be almost hypocritical. Celeste Bell and Paul Sng nearly pull it off with Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, an interesting exploration of both the eponymous musician’s work and what she stood for.
The movie follows Bell, daughter of X-Ray Specs frontwoman Poly Styrene, as she explores her mother’s legacy as a trailblazing musician and a supporter of the cause. There have definitely been films that have taken this same angle — the subject being someone investigating the story of their famous relative — and this movie hits a lot of those beats.
Some of the most interesting portions of the film are those which explore how Poly Styrene was one of the few mixed musicians working in the time, and how she had to deal with the racist beliefs common in the era. But this is just a recurring theme that is discussed fleetingly, then moved on from, before being introduced again. It doesn’t feel like a measured discussion of these themes like it should.
There are a lot of good archive materials here, and it is edited in a way that is entertaining, but there is nothing here that feels particularly unique or revelatory. It’s the standard stuff — recorded performances, interviews with journalists, and the like — and what is missing is something that would give it a more personal touch.
The movie does a very good job of making the audience respect Poly Styrene for her contributions and impacts she had both musically and in terms of greater society, but Bell is a much less developed subject. She doesn’t give the audience enough of a reason to get invested in her own personal journey of exploring her mother’s archives.
It does take a bit for the film to start really going into the music of X-Ray Specs, but once it does, it’s very well-utilized. The movie is also pretty effective at capturing the pretty distinctive personality that the musician had, mostly through archive interviews with her and footage of her performing.
For fans of this style of music, this is sure to be an entertaining watch, if only for the chance to get to witness this part of music history over again. And despite its clear attempts to be something more than an average music documentary, it never goes deep enough to really resonate with general audiences.
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is a solid music documentary, and while it doesn’t succeed in its greater ambitions, it’s above average enough to recommend to fans. It just feels like something is missing here, although it works regardless.
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché hits VOD on February 4.