Rebel Dread – Review

The life story of Don Letts is absolutely fascinating. Now regarded as a respected filmmaker and broadcaster, his formative years were spent in the company of some of the best-known figures on the British Punk scene of the nineteen seventies and beyond. Why this story hasn’t been committed to film before now is a bit of a mystery but I for one am glad it is.

The documentary uses an interview with Don as the basis for the structure of the film. He guides the audience through his life starting with his early years. It covers his initial forays into fashion, meeting up with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren and getting involved with the Punk movement that was coming out of London at the time.  From there, Letts got involved in tour management, filmmaking and going on to be involved with bands of his own.

Early on in his career Letts picked up a film camera and started recording all sorts of stuff. This is the basis for the visuals in the documentary along with a massive quantity of still images from his own collection. This footage adds real depth to the interviews and gives an insight into the times themselves. There was so much going on in London back then and this captures the mood of the time. It wasn’t the best of places to be if you weren’t white and especially if you had a car and an outlandish look about you.

Don discusses, in depth, the good and bad aspects of the time. It doesn’t shy away or sugar coat any of the issues but it does take a little time to highlight the fact that there was a tremendous sense of community both in terms of his home life and his work life. A lot of that was down to the merging and mutual appreciation between the punk c and reggae scenes. His time working with The Clash highlighted this in terms of how they incorporated Reggae into their sound and moulded it to suit themselves.

Letts is a charismatic personality which is noted on more than one occasion in the film. It is this charisma that brings the documentary to life. He is such an eloquent speaker with a real passion for art in all forms that the audience is totally swept up into listening to him talking about his own life.  To keep things fresh and to avoid too much of only Don there are interviews with an array of his contemporaries interspersed throughout the film. These elements show just how wide was the ran=ge of his influence and add even more depth and colour to the film.

Surprisingly Letts is completely honest about his shortcomings, especially when it is regard to his personal life. He is frank and honest about the type of person he was and how that affected those close to him. It isn’t too often that you see the subject of a film being quite so candid about themselves. It is refreshing to see. He also mentions a few times that even though he has been in a couple of bands he isn’t what would be classed as a musician. This is a little unfair to him as his influence and the input he brought to Big Audio Dynamite especially was vastly underrated.

So much time is spent covering a relatively short period that the last decade or so of his life to date is not covered in depth. This is a bit of a pity as Letts is still very much active on Radio and with films. He even won a Grammy for one of his documentaries and this is barely acknowledged. Such is the amount of material to cover I suppose.

Rebel Dread is a fascinating look at the life of Don Letts and is well worth a bit of your time.


John McArthur
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