Enzian Theater screens documentary about Black punk icon and X-Ray Spex leader Poly Styrene, 'I Am a Cliche'

Enzian Theater screens documentary about Black punk icon and X-Ray Spex leader Poly Styrene, 'I Am a Cliche'
Poly Styrene and daughter | photo by Tony Barratt

9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 2
Enzian Theater
1300 S. Orlando Ave.,

There's a picture of Poly Styrene shot onstage with X-Ray Spex in 1978 by Denis O'Regan that depicts the singer in full iconic flight: DIY-modified vintage 1950s clothing, gigantic hair, lips curled into a sneer exposing braces and eyes ablaze with fury. You're welcome to your posters of the Clash and the Sex Pistols, but this is proof positive of punk's initial promise as a truly new type of music. Listening to X-Ray Spex's futuristic albums, full of jittery, angular, angry critiques of our never-ending consumerist dystopia, only further drives that point home.

I Am A Cliché tells the story of Poly Styrene's (née Marianne Elliott-Said) far-too-brief life beautifully, a fitting tribute and elegy to one of the most unique performers in popular music to date. Co-directed and written by Styrene's daughter Celeste Bell, the film follows Bell as she retraces her mother's footsteps, a framing device fleshed out by off-camera interviews with Styrene's friends and family, and a wealth of rare video and photographs from Styrene's personal archive.

A chance encounter with a Sex Pistols show at the age of 19 changed Styrene's life. Soon enough she was auditioning musicians to join what would become her unforgettable first-wave punk band, X-Ray Spex. Born of British and Somali heritage, Styrene embraced the DIY life fully, running her own clothing shop and designing her own pop-art-as-nightmare stagewear.

Something that often gets lost in discussions of Styrene and X-Ray Spex is how incredibly young she was when X-Ray Spex hit the scene. During an interview with a stuffy British television host, Styrene is asked if she is, in fact, a rebel. Styrene flashes an utterly surprised and delighted smile, gives a teenaged laugh and says, offhandedly, "I suppose I am a bit, really."

The Spex made an immediate impact with Germfree Adolescents in '78, charting with singles like the breathless liberation anthem "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!" and thrilling punk audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The world could have been theirs, but Styrene, experienced up-close-and-personal the capitalist nightmare she was warning about in song, and it overwhelmed her. She suffered a breakdown and walked away from her band.

Styrene was mother to Bell by her mid-20s and released a solo album (Translucence, 1980) that was cruelly overlooked. Ensuing years would see her embrace her spirituality, journeying to India and joining a Hare Krishna commune in the U.K.

Styrene would, in the early 2000s, make her way back to her family and her music, and the final act of the film is marked with triumph and tragedy writ large. In the end, she was a hero, an icon, an artist, a mother and a human. This is her story and you need to see it.

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