NZIFF 2021: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)

In looking at the documentaries featured at the New Zealand International Film Festival, this is formally one of the less interesting ones. It’s a TV documentary originally, and though it has a sweet framing story whereby her daughter learns something about her mother’s past, the real interest is in the subject, who is endlessly fascinating, a mass of contradictions and relentless energy.

In learning about and listening to punk music when I was younger, I somehow contrived never to really engage with X-Ray Spex, although I certainly was passingly aware of its singer and frontwoman/band leader Poly Styrene. This film is as much about her daughter (the co-director Celeste Bell) learning about her mother and retracing her footsteps, as it is about Poly Styrene herself, and so some of it feels a little bit meandering. However, it presents enough interesting archival footage and testimony to fully justify its feature length, as Poly Styrene makes for a riveting central character. Watching those early performances, you can see just how young she was, writing from a very specific place of identity and anger, but whose ideas were clearly still under construction, being in her late-teens when she first took the stage. We discover her real name was Marianne Elliott and that there was a certain amount of pull between these two identities that she was never fully comfortable with, but clearly there was also a lot in her life that was uncomfortable, and it made relations with her daughter and family difficult at times. It’s lovely to see her and to hear from those who knew her and were influenced by her (we never see any of the voices on screen except for Poly and her daughter — this film is about a moment for each of its two protagonists, not about ageing, or speculating on how those we see in 40-year-old images might look now) and as a result she is now my favourite punk persona and I urgently need to listen to those albums.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)

Directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell; Writers Sng, Bell and Zoë Howe; Cinematographer Nick Ward; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

White Riot (2019)

A film that’s just come out online at the end of last week is this documentary looking at the start of the Rock Against Racism movement and organisation. It expanded on an earlier short film by the same director and was premiered at the London Film Festival last year, where my mum saw it (she was in town), but it’s been good to catch up with it since, supported by a Q&A with the director and a couple of participants, hosted by Mark Kermode and which is on YouTube.

A documentary looking back at the work of the organisation Rock Against Racism, founded in the mid-70s amidst anger at the increasing pro-fascist rhetoric bandied around by big names like David Bowie, Rod Stewart and most of all Eric Clapton, whose fondness for Enoch Powell and his blood-soaked send-them-all-back-to-*waves hands vaguely* rhetoric, inspired not just anger but also the creation of this movement. Our main guide and entry into this story is “Red” Saunders, the founder of RAR, a man with a big desk and nary a modern device to be seen on it. There’s a certain nostalgia at work here, but I can’t deny it gets to me: the tactility of old zines pulled out, collective remembering of the turbulent times from Red and the people he pulled around him, whether his compatriots at RAR putting together the musical events and their punk publication, or else the musicians with whom he collaborated to get the message out. The archival clips are great, not just of the gigs but more interestingly of the ferment of the time, the rise of the National Front (NF) and their Nazi-embracing thuggery, the complicity of the police. It’s a film that tells a story and doesn’t spare those to blame, but as is only too evident to all of us watching it, has hardly dated in 40-45 years. They may not be called the NF anymore, but the same forces are still with us in British politics, and still need to be called out.

White Riot film posterCREDITS
Director Rubika Shah; Writers Ed Gibbs and Shah; Cinematographer Susanne Salavati; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Thursday 30 April 2020.

Criterion Sunday 191: Jubilee (1978)

I don’t know what aspect of the punk spirit this speaks to — the messy avant-gardism and unpolished amateurishness, the gleefully garish colours (Toyah Willcox’s character Mad has hair which is a constant delight), the casual nudity, sex and violence — but it has a pleasingly anarchic, almost joyfully queer (although I suppose that’s not a word that would have been welcomed at the time), aesthetic that makes it still very compelling and watchable even as it must be now almost 40 years since its premiere. That said, it’s all very much of its time, a vision of post-apocalyptic England in a time of deprivation and uncertainty for which one can draw certain parallels, but a lot of which seems very much bound up in an era of political change. Jarman’s spirit is art school to the core, which made his film unpopular with the art school-bred punks (as Tony Rayns points out in a bonus feature documentary on its making), who preferred trying to come across as something more akin to brazen oiks. However, whatever Jarman’s own political take on things was, this is a still a bright, playful and inclusive vision of the end of days.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Derek Jarman; Writers Jarman and Christopher Hobbs; Cinematographer Peter Middleton; Starring Jenny Runacre, Jordan, Nell Campbell, Toyah Willcox; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 January 2018.

Criterion Sunday 20: Sid and Nancy (1986)

Whatever other angle one might wish to approach this film from — whether its characters’ participation at the vanguard of the late-1970s punk scene in England, or their descent into heroin addiction — Sid and Nancy is at its heart a romance. The two characters are utterly self-absorbed, dangerously self-destructive, and (arguably) of questionable artistic talent, but their commitment to one another endures in a way that’s almost sweet, even when they’re abusing one another — well, up until a point, at least. One thing you certainly shouldn’t look for in this portrait of the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his romance with Nancy Spungen is for restrained acting: there’s a palpably gleeful embrace of over-acting by all the actors. This doesn’t always pay dividends, but it does create an atmosphere in which any kind of behaviour seems possible, and in which all too much does indeed happen. As the protagonists slide at length into drug addiction, the film starts to take on a sort of hypnotically repetitive quality (there’s a particularly amusing scene where Sid muses that things will be better when they get to New York, to which Nancy replies that they are there already, prompting him to open the window and look out), such that its concluding act of violence seems indistinguishable from the rest of the pair’s grim existence. It’s difficult to say how much of this is true to the actual events, but the film seems to be suggesting that the two were made for each other. Certainly, if they weren’t, it’s difficult to tell for whom they could have been made.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox; Writers Cox and Abbe Wool; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 January 2015.

The Punk Singer (2013)

An increasing number of independent features are finding their breaks through crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter, and The Punk Singer, a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, one of the originators of the so-called Riot Grrrl movement, is no different. It may not play well to those who are not already sympathetic towards Hanna’s life and music, but for those who are, it’s a compelling compilation of archive clips, blasts of her ferocious musical talent (with bands Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and now the Julie Ruin), and the de rigueur talking head commentaries from those who’ve lived with her, worked with her, or just been fans of her music. Hanna herself is interviewed as well (one gets the sense that she is partially an auteur of this particular vision) and it manages to avoid pure hagiography through her apparent caginess as a documentary subject. In many ways it seems like it’s the affliction she’s coped with over the last decade (Lyme’s Disease), and its corrosive effect on her musical creativity, which she feels gives her license to focus on herself as much as this documentary does. I may of course be projecting, but you get the sense from the interviews that she wouldn’t have felt comfortable just doing a piece about her place in musical history (which, let me be clear, is fascinating in itself), whether from humility or as a result of the way her position (as an outspoken woman in a traditionally male-dominated arena) has been distorted by the media; in this regard, it’s probably no coincidence that the majority of talking head interviews here are with women. And so it’s this enforced break in her career that came in 2005 which serves as the documentary’s linchpin, and it turns out to be a relatively dramatically satisfying one as well. The fact that she cancelled a planned appearance at the screening I went to, as well as her upcoming European tour, are clear indications that she hasn’t fully recovered (nor perhaps ever will) from this period of illness, but her recent undaunted musical output suggests there’s some hope for her and for her fans in the future.

The Punk Singer film posterCREDITS
Director Sini Anderson; Cinematographers Jennie Jeddry and Moira Morel; Starring Kathleen Hanna; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 14 May 2014.

Vi är bäst! (We Are the Best!, 2013)

It all starts off very slowly with a middle-class middle-aged woman’s birthday party, and, if you’ve not watched a Lukas Moodysson film since Lilja 4-ever (2002) or even, dear me, its follow-up Ett hål i mitt hjärta (A Hole in My Heart, 2004), then you can spend a good portion of the film’s running time fearing a turn towards the nightmarish worst in this story of a couple of young girls growing up in early-80s Stockholm with a flair for non-conformity and a passion for punk music. There’s a lot of stuff that mid-2000s Moodysson could easily have done with this scenario, but the relief — and the delight — of it all is that it remains affirming of the girls’ decisions and makes for a brisk repudiation of lazy clichés about women in rock. Sure, like many punk musicians, the central two, Bobo and Klara (bespectacled Mira Barkhammar and mohawk-sporting Mira Grosin), start from a place of not knowing how to play, but make up for it in sheer determination — not to mention boredom at their tedious conformist lives and school. They recruit one of their schoolmates, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), who is actually trained in classical guitar though likewise shunned for her beliefs (in this case, her commitment to Christianity, rather than obnoxious music). This is where things could go all sentimental — you can easily imagine a Hollywood remake with a mellifluously bassy trailer voice hymning these three girls who come from unlikely places to forge a friendship and make music — but it all stays refreshingly free of judgement. My favourite scene is one where some older music tech guys who own a small rehearsal space start mansplaining their instruments to the girls, only to be swiftly rebutted by Hedvig’s playing, which is far superior to theirs. There’s a bit of coming of age thematics to this (there’s a brief dalliance with similar punk boys of around the same age who live out in some far-flung suburb) but mostly it just stays focused on the three young women and their friendship. And it’s delightful.

We Are the Best! film posterCREDITS
Director Lukas Moodysson; Writers Coco Moodysson and Lukas Moodysson; Cinematographer Ulf Brantås; Starring Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 21 April 2014.