Art Doc of the Week | Who Is Poly Styrene?

The 1979 BBC documentary Who is Poly Styrene? opens with footage of the young Styrene looking into a mirror and applying makeup as she recites, in voiceover, the lyrics to her 1978 punk classic, “Identity,” whose lyrics she wrote while fronting her band X-Ray Spex. The song is a razor-sharp feminist critique of the nexus of capitalism, pop culture and self-identity – the tensions, anxieties and false senses of self-ownership. It is, of course, pressingly relevant today.

By the time Styrene (birth name: Marianne Elliot-Said) died of spine and breast cancer in 2011 at the age of 53, the biracial Brit-Somali had created a body of work – she went on to have a respected solo career – that secured her place as a feminist icon for making music that never pandered to the pop marketplace. More importantly, as she showed while still with X-Ray Spex, she wasn’t above turning her sharp eye and sharper wit on herself. Right from the start she was aware that punk was as much about poses and facades as it was about subverting anything.

Poly Styrene. Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns.

Poly Styrene. Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns.

That awareness comes through loud and clear in Who is Poly Styrene?, in which BBC cameras trail Styrene from her home to band rehearsals to concert performances. But where stars like Beyonce and Madonna have turned such behind-the-scenes documentaries into brand burnishing, tightly reigned product, Who has a melancholy diaristic tone. It takes you right inside the discomfort of Styrene – whose stage name was famously chosen as a commentary on the plasticity and disposability of pop stars. That’s largely due to her voiceover – consisting of spoken recitation of her lyrics, as well as her own commentary as she’s seen watching nature docs on TV, or shown looking through tour bus windows. We’re pulled into her crisp, sharply analytical running commentary as it segues from musing on a future in which scientists genetically engineer humans for specific jobs, to her ambivalence about celebrity. Regarding the latter, she steers clear of self-pity but outlines how both her persona and fan affection for it feel like a prison, with fans clawing for pieces of her.

With a gray, overcast visual style, the film serves as a time capsule, capturing not only the fashion and music of the time, but also the bleak economic climate against which British punk was formed. We see Styrene at home flipping through magazines; at photo-shoots in which she knowingly dives head first into cliché’s of the photographer snapping the hot thing of the moment; in the studio recording struggling with playback levels; and shopping for stage-wear while noting that fashion is about creating and playing with public façade. On the soundtrack she recites the lyric she’s written for “I Am a Poseur,” a biting take down of the punk scene itself: “I am a poseur and I don’t care, I like to make people stop and stare…”

At one point in the film, she’s assisted by a black queen who works in the boutique where she’s shopping for stage gear. After holding up a garment he jokes, “You put this on and even I might turn.” She laughs back, “You should try it on.” “No, hon,” he tells her, “this is your movie. This is your life.”

In a moment both on the nose and poignant, the camera catches her in silhouette, at home practicing the piano as she speaks forcefully of the desire to not be seen at all, to not be surrounded by sycophants, the longing for the banality of “normal” life.

It’s interesting to note that in all the performance footage, the audience appears packed with nothing but young white men. You don’t see any of the women (of any race) who adopted her as a hero and turned her into a feminist icon. If you’ve read on the history of punk, you know that women who attended shows were often crowded into the back, not able to penetrate the wall of maleness that surged toward the stage and claimed the foot of it for themselves, often making that area unsafe for female bodies. But the stage itself wasn’t necessarily a safe spot for Styrene. The film ends with footage of hordes of male fans thronging around her after a show, grabbing and pulling on her while barking, “Give us a kiss.” She smiles stoically while pushing through.


Previously on Art Doc of the Week:

Top photo courtesy the artist estate