Don Letts narrates the story of his life in Rebel Dread. It’s a pretty amazing life, being at the nexus of iconic cultural moments in music.
Growing up in Brixton in London, when it was a Little Jamaica, it was a community of first generation Black Britons, Jamaican immigrant families, and working class white folks. Letts remembers it fondly. As a kid, he was aware that racism existed, but in his community there seemed to be a commonality among folk, even when they hung out in their own crowds, they coexisted together without issue. It wasn’t until he got to secondary school that racism was brought to the forefront.
Enoch Powell, that old bastard, did his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, and Don went from being Lettsy in the playground to a spat upon outsider. Racist epithets were hurled at him, National Front slogans went up, all the bullshit began. The most consistently racist interaction he had was with the polis. The sus law was used to stop and search any black person coming and going at any time. It was basically a blank cheque for perpetual harassment.
At the same time the social situation was heating up, Letts saw The Who perform, and his head burst wide open to rock and roll. He decided to become a rebel, reject this assimilation, good school, model citizen path his parents had chosen for him, and decided to make rock music his life, with all the style and attitude that went along with it.
Whenever the police pulled him over, he’d jump up on his car bonnet, attract a crowd, and start stripping, since he was such a ‘suspicious character’ after all. He put the police to shame for their attempts to denigrate him, making their racist tactics visible to the whole street. Taking back a bit of power by making it a stage.
On the music and politics front, Letts became unique for touching on a lot of different scenes. He was a great lover of the rasta music played throughout his neighbourhood, he hung out in the queer scenes that worshipped Bowie, and he ran with the white punk rockers, as that genre began to emerge. Constantly at every gig at The Roxy, he’d invite folk back to hang at his, and there’d be Bob Marley hanging with Souixie Sioux and John Lydon and whoever else. Countless bands and artists credit him with introducing them to new music and helping influence their work.
He began filming what was happening, without a plan beyond that he wanted to capture this really creative time. Someone eventually suggested a movie, and he ran with the idea, making The Punk Rock Movie, a documentary of the early years of punk. He was getting film developed and then editing that shit by holding it up to the light, cutting, and sellotaping bits together. Fucking madness.
From this he became the videographer for his mates in The Clash, directing their music videos, including London Calling. This launched him into the world of filmmaking. He directed numerous music videos, documentaries and films. He toured with his own band, Big Audio Dynamite, seeing the world.
While Letts provides the main narration, the talking heads that chime in with their piece of the story reads like a list of headliner bands, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and so on. There’s so many people you just swipe past, like Elvis Costello, The Beastie Boys, Ice-T. His life really is a mad ride.
Really interesting film, and really satisfying to hear it told first hand by the man himself.