Celeste Bell is the daughter of Poly Styrene (aka: Marian Elliot). As co-director (with Paul Sng), she opens this film about her mother with a poignant voice-over:
My mother was a punk-rock icon. People often ask me if she was a good mum. It’s hard to know what to say. Sometimes I think of an answer she might have come up with. ‘A good mum,’ she’d say. ‘How banal. How mundane.’
The funeral was surreal. My memory of it is a blur. All these people I’d never met. People who came to say goodbye to Poly Styrene — this famous person. Someone so far removed from the mother I knew. I felt sick to my stomach.
I screened this at the recent (virtual) Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, and liked the film immediately. My father recently passed and I can absolutely relate to Ms. Bell’s emotion. Consolers often seem to be talking about a different person than the father I knew. Ms. Bell goes on to admit that she wasn’t ready to be the caretaker of Poly Styrene’s legacy. That bit of confession makes this not just a great documentary, but also a brave work of art.
I was expecting this to be a film about the musical legacy of Poly Styrene and her pioneering London punk-rock band X-Ray Spex. I knew their signature song, “Oh Bondage Up Yours,” with its famous spoken intro, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard…” But the film is much richer than a mere Behind the Music VH1 doc. It’s a touching memoir told through the eyes of the icon’s daughter.
Poly was an outspoken critic of consumerism and mass-marketing culture. This film offers clear-eyed criticism of popular culture and the commoditizing impact it has on those who create and become famous for it. It’s critical of the effects of celebrity on relationships and families. And it’s critical of how society approaches mental health.
Mostly though, it’s a delicate homage to a mother from her daughter. The film makes extensive use of archival footage to tell Poly’s story, and to chronicle their fraught relationship. Yes, I learned a lot about this thoughtful and complex cultural figure, but above all I was moved by the teller and her story.