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SFFILM Review: “Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché”

The 64th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM) is going on now through April 18th. It is the longest-running film festival in the Americas and this year they are doing a hybrid event that includes drive-in screenings happening in San Francisco along with over 100 films available to watch online for viewers in the United States.

Co-directed by filmmakers Paul Sng and Celeste Bell, “Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché,” is on the festival’s documentary slate this year. It chronicles the life and career of Marion Elliot, better known professionally as Poly Styrene, frontwoman of legendary British punk band X-Ray Spex.

She was a young biracial woman with braces and a flair for fashion when she saw the Sex Pistols play a raucous live show on her 19th birthday. Shortly after, Poly placed an ad looking to form a band and the rest is history. X-Ray Spex only managed to create one album before falling apart, but their 1978 debut “Germfree Adolescents” broke all the rules.

It found them hitting the charts with their first single “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” and having a wildly brief wave of success. After the band’s dissolution, Poly Styrene had a daughter named Celeste and struggled off-and-on with mental health issues.

It is Celeste that lays out the history here (with Oscar-nominated actress Ruth Negga voicing passages from Poly’s own diaries and poetry), using her 2019 book “Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story” as the blueprint. She celebrates Poly Styrene’s talents while also being very honest about how imperfect their relationship was for many years before they became close again in the years before Poly Styrene passed away after a battle with breast cancer. Celeste didn’t know her mother as a pioneering punk icon, but mostly as an absent parent.

Audio interviews with Thurston Moore, Kathleen Hanna, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, Youth, Neneh Cherry, and former bandmates are interspersed with archival interviews and some incredible performance footage.

Online tickets for “Poly Styrene: I Am A Clichéare still available for purchase to anyone in the United States and the film is viewable until Sun, Apr 18 at 11:59 pm PST. Viewings must be completed with 24 hours of starting the film and a Q&A will play automatically after the film credits end.

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