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Blu-Ray : Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: July 26th, 2022 Movie Release Year: 2021

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

Overview -

Directed by the singer's daughter Celeste Bell, the rockumentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is a poignant, loving biographical tribute to the founder and frontwoman of X-Ray Spex while simultaneously chronicling Poly's career as a subculture icon. Courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome, the documentary takes the Blu-ray stage with a highly-satisfying A/V presentation although the bonus features leave much to desire. Nevertheless, the overall HD package is Recommended.

Poly Styrene was the first woman of colour in the UK to front a successful rock band, and a key influence on the riot grrrl and Afropunk movements. But Poly didn’t just leave behind a cultural footprint. She was survived by a daughter, Celeste, who became the steward of her mother’s legacy and demons, which plagued Poly’s life and scarred the pair’s relationship. With narration by Ruth Negga, this film follows Celeste’s journey to better understand Poly as an icon and mother.

directed by: Paul Sng, Celeste Bell
starring: Ruth Negga, Kathleen Hanna, Vivienne Westwood, Thurston Moore, Jonathan Ross, Pauline Black, Neneh Cherry
2021 / 96 min / 1.78:1 / English DTS HD-MA 5.1

Additional info:

  • Region A Blu-ray
  • Q&A from SXSW 2021
  • Selected Scene Commentary with Directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell
  • Booklet featuring an essay by Dana Reinoos and intros by directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell
  • English SDH subtitles

 

Purchase Original Edition From Vinegar Syndrome.

OVERALL:
Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Region Free
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p AVC/MPEG-4
Length:
96
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.78:1
Audio Formats:
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles/Captions:
English SDH
Special Features:
Featurette
Release Date:
July 26th, 2022

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

I grew up during the tail-end of punk music shattering into the mainstream — more like disrupting and unsettling the established norm — right as the genre reverted back to the underground, experimental subculture scene where it evolved and spun off into an array of subgenres. I can't remember exactly where, who or what band triggered my love of the genre although I suspect it was either Dead Kennedys, Black Flag or Bad Brains. At this point in my life, my memories are like a vague, nostalgic reminiscence that keeps moving further away from the person I am today and will be tomorrow, but however it happened, my introduction to punk quickly ignited an appetite for discovering many other bands and those largely responsible in giving rise to its popularity. One of the bands I stumbled on while rummaging through cassette tapes and vinyl records at my local, hole-in-the-wall music store were the oddly-named X-Ray Spex.

After listening to their album Germfree Adolescents, which I instantly loved, I developed a fascination for the group's frontwoman Poly Styrene. Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, Poly was a bit of an awkward enigma mainly because she did not portray or adopt the loud, brash, defiant, hubristic attitude and appearance that had quickly become the stereotype of the genre. At a time when women were not yet making huge waves in the scene, this nineteen-year-old woman of color sporting a big smile with braces made a massive splash dressed in weird, homemade outfits that both embraced her femininity but also defied any gender normative. Taking a stage name that represented the new plastic, artificial world modernity was evolving into, Poly was a rebel among rebels, a soft-spoken but nonetheless forthright, intelligent and discerning creative. Being different and unique within a counterculture scene, she was a beautiful paradox. 

In Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, the documentary directed by Poly's daughter Celeste Bell with Paul Sng seeks to dispel some of the mystery without actually attempting to solve the paradox. It works both as a loving biographical tribute to Celeste's mother and a captivating chronicle of Poly's career as a subculture icon. Also serving as the film's narrator, Celeste combs through her mother's belongings, boxes full of photos and hundreds of memorabilia, admitting it took her a decade after Poly's death to finally build the courage to decide what to do with it all, embracing this new life as custodian and manager of her mother's artistic estate and legacy. So with that, the documentary adds another layer to an already powerful story told from fragmented anecdotes of the many people who knew Poly, from selected passages of her diary, and of course, from the lyrics to her music reflecting insightful observations by a complicated person. 

As we trace Poly's beginnings growing up in Brixton, London, Celeste is simultaneously dealing with her grief, both for the loss of her mother and the rocky, troubled relationship they had, which we soon learn was sadly beyond Poly's control. And that is the real beauty of this intimate look into the life of a person beloved by her fans but either misunderstood or underappreciated while she battled alone the inner demons that ultimately took over a big chunk of her life. After the failure of her solo album Translucence, I always believed she simply retired into motherhood only to discover here that she was in and out of hospital, misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and lived in a Hare Krishna commune. And while Celeste opens up about her experiences with her mother, there is never a sense of anger or regret about all she's been through, but there is a great deal of compassion and sympathy for a fascinating individual who truly lived to the best of her abilities. 

 

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome, Utopia Distribution brings Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché to Blu-ray as a single-disc package. The Region Free, BD25 disc is housed inside a clear keepcase with reversible cover art and an eight-page booklet featuring a thoughtful essay by Dana Reinoos. At startup, the disc goes straight to a static menu screen with the usual options along the bottom.

Video Review

Ranking:

The music doc takes the Blu-ray stage with an excellent and highly-detailed 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. However, it suffers, unfortunately, from a few video artifacts, most notably a fair amount of color banding sporadically rearing its ugly head. Coming directly from a digital source, the freshly-minted transfer also shows several instances of mild posterization in the hottest areas and some faint moiré patterns along the brick walls of buildings that can be seen from a short distance. On the other hand, the HD video maintains outstanding definition and clarity for a majority of the runtime, particularly several of the panoramic shots of the beach. Ironically, the best moments are the archives footage and pictures, awash in a thin, natural layer of grain. 

Presented mostly in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio that alternates with a 4:3 window for the vintage footage, the documentary debuts with strong contrast balance, boasting crisp, brilliant whites throughout. Black levels are also rich and accurately rendered with excellent shadow details, and again, the archive video comes out on top. The photography enjoys a richly-saturated color palette, beaming with spirited, full-bodied primaries and bold, vivid secondary hues while facial complexions appear healthy and revealing. Some of the best, most colorful moments are those in India where our narrator further meditates on her mother's life. (Video Rating: 82/100)

Audio Review

Ranking:

The documentary also makes its Blu-ray debut with an excellent and enjoyable DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that doesn't necessarily make the most immersive use of the surround channels, but it nonetheless delivers an impressive and highly satisfying experience. The front-heavy design displays outstanding channel balance with convincing movement across the entire soundstage, exhibiting a dynamic mid-range, clean acoustical details and superb fidelity during the musical numbers. When applying the receivers' Auro-3D up-mixing functionality, the music and a few bits of ambient effects lightly bleed into the top heights, nicely expanding the soundfield without feeling forced or artificial. All the while, vocals remain precise and very well-prioritized with exceptional clarity and intonation in the voices of every person interviewed, especially our central narrator. The low-end does not stand out or is particularly memorable, but it is adequate for the genre and subject matter with plenty of appreciable weight and presence when the music comes in. (Audio Rating: 80/100)

Special Features

Ranking:

  • Audio Commentary by the directors but only for selected scenes.
  • Q&A from SXSW 2021 (HD, 26 min) 

Not your typical rockumentary, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is a poignant, loving biographical tribute to the founder and frontwoman of the punk rock band X-Ray Spex directed by the singer's daughter Celeste Bell while simultaneously chronicling Poly's career as a subculture icon. Courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome and Utopia Distribution, the documentary takes the Blu-ray stage with an excellent and highly-satisfying audio and video presentation. Sadly, the assortment of supplements leaves much to desire, but the overall HD package is nonetheless recommended

All disc reviews at High-Def Digest are completed using the best consumer HD home theater products currently on the market. More about the gear used for this review.