I’ve been eager to see this film for over a year now, and last night I was able to stream it from one of my local arts cinemas. ” The film was a look at the turbulent life and times of Poly Styrene; the intelligent teenager who, after seeing the Sex Pistols on her 19th birthday on July 3rd, 1976, changed the direction of her life. Following her death from cancer eleven years ago, we now have this documentary, helmed by her daughter Celeste Bell and Paul Sng.
While I have been aware of X-Ray Spex since the band’s late 70s origins, and had often seen their “Germ-Free Adolescents” LP in the import bins, I had never actually heard them. Apart from one example. I have owned Virgin’s “Guillotine” 10″ New Wave Sampler where the debut single by the band, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” was the final track. I had gotten a copy in the early 80s for the non-LP XTC cut there, and the raucous Punk attack of that track didn’t do too much for the 20 year old me. Mea culpa. 44 years later this is exactly the sort of album that was right in my cross hairs.
I had known some of the periphery of the life of Marianne Elliott, a.k.a. Poly Styrene, but the film tells us of her unfettered narrative. Born in 1957 to a Scottish-Irish mother and an absent Somali father, young Poly had to deal with racism directed towards her mixed parentage from the very beginning. She had released a Reggae-Pop single in 1975 on GTO Records under her given name that went nowhere. Seeing The Sex Pistols the next year gave the smart young woman a completely new direction as the film shows footage that seems for all the world like Don Letts might have been filming her in 8mm at that very decisive gig. How many Punk documentaries would not exist but for the efforts of that man!
After that flashpoint, Marianne found her new nom-du-rock in the fully plastic Poly Styrene; the name of a perfect pop star. The Punk movement gave her the platform to write songs examining the world with a critical eye, and she rounded up a backing band by advertising in the British music papers. it seemed in no time at all, that this vibrant young woman had set about making a new persona that was perfect for the times. Between her youth [she was still in braces], her gender, her distinct hybrid vigor, and her design sensibilities, there was no one else in Punk like Poly Styrene. X-Ray Spex signed with EMI and found themselves on Top of the Pops with a hit single early on.
After their UK success the band crossed the pond to perform at CBGB in New York City. There, Poly was shocked to see the plastic society that she wrote about in the abstract fully manifest. It weighed heavily on the sensitive young woman. After that point in her career, she had a vision she ascribed to a UFO, after which she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. Leading to an increasingly fractured life from that point onward. Her daughter Celeste was born in the early 80s and experienced very intimately, all of the difficulties which this film enumerated.
The film certainly didn’t shy away from depicting painful truths. An unrequited crush on John Lydon was a possible trigger for an episode where she went to visit him in his nearby home only to be largely ignored, as Don Lett’s commentary recounted. She ultimately left the living room that day to spend thirty minutes in the bathroom before coming downstairs with her head now shaven. Letts ruefully admitted that they still didn’t give her any attention. Just one more cry for help that went unheard at the time.
This film painted a vivid portrait of Poly as an outsider. Though she was from Bromley, Kent, she was never a part of the famed Bromley Contingent clique. She took Punk as the means to create her own éntree into music as a fully D.I.Y. artist at a tender age. Acting as an outsider in what was already an outsider art form. Using a wealth of vintage footage the filmmakers sagely used interviewees voices over footage of Poly and the era to keep the viewer in the bubble they were creating. the viewer stayed in the narrative’s milieu throughout the film.
Celeste was shown on a journey tracing her mother’s life and even death as she revisits key places and reviews her mother’s archives of ephemera. Scenes of Celeste reviewing the “Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story” book that she published with Zoe Howe in 2019, act to establish the narrative thread and to further link daughter to mother.
When Celeste was born, by that time her mother had left X-Ray Spex, released her ill-accepted solo album, “Translucence,” which had been the furthest thing from Punk or New Wave. various stints being hospitalized left Celeste often in the care of her grandmother. Meanwhile, the life of Poly and Celeste once she joined the Hare Krishna ashram was another turbulent chapter in her life. During all of this, Poly’s actual issue, bipolar disorder, was misdiagnosed and treated as schizophrenia. Ultimately leading to a harrowing chapter where a young Celeste escaped from her mother’s home with the help of a social services worker. Resulting in her living with her grandmother and being estranged from her mother for a large portion of her life.
In 1991, Poly began getting the proper care she needed for her bipolar disorder and that enabled her to have more stability later in her life. She reformed X-Ray Spex for one more album [“Conscious Consumer”] in 1995 and a 2008 concert at The Roundhouse where they played the “Germ-Free Adolescents album in full for the last performance of her life. By that time, Celeste had formed her own band, and joined her mother onstage for “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”
2011 brought her final album “Generation Indigo,” which was released nearly concurrent with her death from metastatic breast cancer. The film described the anguish of Celeste and her mother reconciling only to have cancer stop them just as they had gotten their relationship renewed. The film, which had opened with the emotions that Celeste had experienced at her mother’s funeral, closed with her fulfillment of her mother’s last wishes as her remains were brought finally to India.
This film vividly showed how both the music industry and society was easily prepared to ignore the observations [and problems] of a young woman who was hardly going to fit into the molds that were available for young women [and especially young women of color] at that time. To say nothing of the intervening decades which have see-sawed back an forth on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior for such a person. Marianne Elliott had a difficult path ahead of her in the 70s and 80s and after all of this time, it might not have been any easier for her even now. Fortunately, films like this one exist to illuminate and inform us all.