“I wanna be instamatic. I wanna be a frozen pea” howls Poly Styrene on X-Ray Spex’s debut, and only, album released in 1978. Shriek-singing observations of commodity fetishism, germs and genetic engineering, over 40 years later and “the world is still playing catch-up with Poly Styrene”; as stated by Pauline Black in Poly Styrene: I am a Cliche. Taking its title from her playfully self-depreciating lyrics, this new film goes beyond chronicling the incendiary career of an oft-deemed punk icon; excavating the intricate and intimate tale beneath. A punk anomaly – Poly eschewed black leather for jelly shoes and frumpy cardigans, heavy guitars for saxophones – I am a Cliche recounts Poly’s fixations of consumerism and Krishna consciousness. Just as Poly (or rather, Marianne Elliot-Said) struggled to resolve her identity as a mixed-race British woman, the film portrays the concurrent pride and dismay experienced by Celeste Bell, Poly’s daughter. In sifting through the Pandora’s box of her mother’s existence – her archive and ashes – a multi-faceted portrait emerges of mental health, motherhood and ferocious lung-power. Spearheading the revival and recognition that Poly Styrene so deserved, we spoke to co-director Celeste Bell, and writer Zoë Howe about the contemporary pertinence of Poly Styrene.
You’re a prolific biographer, what drew you to Poly Styrene as a subject, both for the book and film?
Zoë Howe: There were a few roads leading to Poly! I’d always loved X-Ray Spex and used to broadcast an online punk reggae show where I played her music a lot, so I was honoured to be invited to write a bio for the 2008 X-Ray Spex reunion at the Roundhouse (Poly’s final show, as it turned out.) She’s also in my 2009 Slits biography, and I interviewed her shortly before she sadly passed away just a few years later. I interviewed her daughter Celeste Bell for my book about the children of ‘rock star’ parents, and in 2016, Celeste contacted me to say she had this treasure trove of archive material of her Mum’s, things that had never been seen before, and that she was keen to put together a book.
It was around this time that I’d met the director Paul Sng – we’d done a few panel events together when he was promoting his Sleaford Mods film Invisible Britain. We discussed maybe doing a film together and I suggested we could do a Poly Styrene film in addition to the book. She was such a visual person, a walking work of art! I thought she deserved to be seen and appreciated as much as possible. Paul was up for it and, thankfully, so was Celeste! And off we went.
The book and film were made in tandem – how did they mutually influence one another yet ensure that neither medium was repeating the other?
Celeste Bell: The projects were both complementary and yet distinct. The extensive research process that the book entailed was very useful for the film script development; many of the interviews that were part of the book also made their way into the film. However, the limitation of a book is that sound is absent; with the film, we are able to bring together visual, literary and sonic features to create a much more immersive experience.
ZH: They were completely intertwined. The main thing to bear in mind is that with a film, you have very little time to go into everything in the way you might like to. It was interesting to see someone tweet after seeing the film that Neneh Cherry’s interview was “the best, because she was the only one who mentioned Poly’s voice.” Of course, that wasn’t quite true – all of our interviewees spoke about her voice! But with a film, everything has to be distilled.
This meant that, when I was putting the book together, there wasn’t much danger of repeating the same things, because there was so much to work with. I wove the voices together as if it was a conversation. There are swathes of material that I didn’t include; I spent a lot of time sculpting and shaping, and deciding which images and ephemera from Celeste’s archive should ideally belong with which quote or chapter, before it even went to the publisher. I must mention Celeste’s letters – those were originally written for the film, as Paul Sng had suggested that the film be a series of chapters punctuated by letters written by Celeste to her Mum. As things shifted with both projects, Celeste developed the letters into more of a rolling narration in the film, but the letters actually fitted perfectly in the book.
The song ‘Germ-Free Adolescents’ perfectly encapsulated the past year (despite being released in 1978) though, of course, the pandemic has meant that the film hasn’t had a cinematic release – has the timing been serendipitous or a hindrance?
ZH: It’s the culmination of quite a journey, so it’s strange not to be able to be together and clink a glass as we watch our film on the big screen, but we will. What’s great is that it is probably reaching more people because it’s so easy for people all over the country to just log on and watch. It also feels like it’s a deeply relevant time for the film to come out – it was released around International Women’s Day, there is more attention than ever on the BLM movement, and we are looking at issues such as mental health and identity with a greater clarity and compassion. Strangely, next month it will also be exactly ten years since Poly died, so maybe it has been serendipitous.
CB: it’s uncanny how prescient Germ-Free Adolescents is! it’s definitely the anthem of this past year. It’s a perfect example of my mother’s ability to conjure up visions of the future in her song writing. Finishing and releasing the film during a pandemic has certainly been a challenge, however, it hasn’t stopped us from finding and connecting with an audience at all.
Both the film and book include contradictory accounts, which echo Poly’s own paradoxes. How did you maintain a strong narrative even with so many voices?
CB: The interview process was probably my favourite part of making the film because it’s where I personally discovered most of what was unknown to me about my mother’s past. We didn’t follow a strict script and carried out the interviews in an informal, intimate style. In terms of narrative, it’s all comes down to the scriptwriting and editing process and we were lucky to work with a great editor, Xanna Ward Dixon. It took a long time to select excerpts of interview testimony that reflected the themes we wished to explore, but we were only able to do this after clearly defining the three-act structure of the story.
Z: It’s good to include contradictions and differing perspectives – it’s more human. People often have different memories of the same events, we all have distinct perspectives according to our own conditioning, our culture and where life has taken us, and we also have tricky memories that change and shift. I think representing that is vital, although it is important not to allow it to descend into a kind of chaos – there has to be a core thread that runs throughout. The main thing is that, with projects like this, you know what you want to present, and you have a shape and a structure in your mind as to how you want to proceed – that’s like the tree trunk and the roots. Everything else is branches and leaves. The branches and leaves will sway and change, some might fall off (!) but the trunk stays true.
What do you hope people will take from the film, both fans and those who were unaware of Poly?
CB: I hope the audience will be able to connect to and find inspiration in my mother’s story because although it may appear to be a unique tale, the film deals with universal themes that everyone can relate to; loss, grief, success and failure and more.
ZH: I hope people will get better at talking about mental health – their own and other people’s. I think we are already in a place where we are at least better at articulating certain things, but the only way is up. ’Show business’ and the music industry has much work to do, though.
What’s your favourite Poly Styrene song and why?
CB: I like ‘Plastic Bag’ because of the changes in tempo that complement the high and lows of the lyrics which in turn reflect my mother’s mental state and the state of the world both in 1977 and 2021!
ZH: That keeps changing – I love ‘Let’s Submerge’, it just rocks and that fabulous crack in her voice is great. But the most haunting for me is ‘Electric Blue Monsoon’ from her final album Generation Indigo. I interviewed her shortly before she passed away in 2011, she was promoting the album from the hospice and was so brave and generous with her time. A couple of weeks later, I couldn’t sleep, got up early and walked to the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus (I lived in Soho at the time). I sat on the steps and looked up at this perfect blue April sky, and ‘Electric Blue Monsoon’ was just going round and round in my head. I later found out that she had just died. So that song is very poignant, but it’s uplifting and puts across her joyful spirituality, and the freedom it gave her at the end, so perfectly.
Our ongoing series of reports on film from the underground with a special emphasis on those films with a subculture theme.
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