Punk and motherhood are just two of the themes that spin through the excellent documentary I Am a Cliché, a bittersweet portrait of the late trailblazer Poly Styrene. At last might be the subtitle — the life of the X-Ray Spex frontwoman has cried out for the screen for years, a gleaming pearl of 20th-century culture every bit as significant as her peers The Sex Pistols.
But her story was always a little complicated too, a one-woman riot of upturned expectations. She was emotionally fragile and an electric stage presence; mixed race in the 1970s England of Enoch Powell; female in a laddish London punk scene; a teenage savant from a south London housing estate. Top of the Pops was taken over in DIY couture and dental braces, a far cry from the doe-eyed pin-ups young women were meant to aspire to. She window-shopped avidly then wrote far-sighted lyrics about consumerism and the age of plastic.
Co-directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell — the singer’s daughter — make a stop at the famous Chelsea address where Vivienne Westwood once ran clothes shop Sex, the clock on the front of the building still set to run backwards. On screen, the history is all there in moreish archive clips. But Poly was decades ahead of her time, and nostalgia is never the whole story. The film’s secret weapon is its candour — about Britain, the music business, mental health and the subject herself. It is probably easier to admire an original thinker, we realise, than to be one. Or as Bell admits, to be their child. Yet the Poly we meet here would demand nothing less than absolute honesty. Most real celebrations end up in tears eventually.
Available at modernfilms.com/polystyrene/watch from March 5
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