Photo: Lisa Jones
By Jeffrey Sipe and Nina Rodriguez
Don Letts is a man of many talents—a DJ, musician, filmmaker, and a thoroughly engaging storyteller—who has left a significant mark on the pop music industry throughout his long career. Letts is most famously known for injecting Afro-Caribbean music into the early punk scene, but his contributions go far beyond that. He has around 400 music videos to his credit, including many for Bob Marley. As presented in this documentary, the wealth of cultural history contained in his extraordinary life is more than impressive.
Director William Badgley had previously made a documentary about the all-female punk band The Slits, which Letts managed in the 1970s. In «Rebel Dread,» Letts takes center stage as its protagonist and also acts as executive producer. The film takes advantage of an abundance of excellent archival material, mostly shot on 8mm, to offer a generous ride of a documentary portrait filled with hilarious anecdotes from musicians such as Mick Jones, John Lydon, and Daddy G.
Born in Brixton to parents who immigrated for work from Jamaica in the mid-1950s, Letts has a life story of resilience and creativity inspired by James Brown’s iconic performance of «Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.» As a teenager, Letts fell under the influence of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood while working in a clothes shop on King’s Road. Invited to DJ at the Roxy, Letts blended his Rasta community with the thriving punk scene in London. After the club closed, Letts’ home became a party destination for musicians like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Billy Idol.
Having toured with The Clash, Letts later became a musician for Mick Jones’s Big Audio Dynamite and established the label’s innovative use of sampling and fusion of musical genres. Buying a Super 8 camera to shoot punk concerts set him on the path to becoming a prolific director, most proud of having directed the first Black music video to be played on MTV.
«Rebel Dread» pays tribute to Letts’ extraordinary life and contributions to the punk and Black British music scene. The film also offers a glimpse into Letts’ fabulous archive, which is a treasure trove of cultural history. Letts’ life story is inspiring, and his passion for music and filmmaking is contagious, a must-see for anyone interested in the history of punk, Black British music, and filmmaking.
Letts is still very much alive and was in Mexico to present the film at Ambulante earlier this year. DJ Peluzza, who performed at that screening, will also kick off the San Miguel presentation at Compartimento Cinematográfico on Friday, May 12. The screening is part of the 11th edition of the Ambulante Presenta traveling showcase that Mexico’s renowned documentary festival organizes in collaboration with local exhibitors in a continuing shared effort to reach new audiences and establish alternative exhibition models for documentary cinema throughout Mexico.
In addition to «Rebel Dread, » the program at Compartimento Cinematografico includes a kids’ program and a restoration of Paul Leduc’s «Ecocidio.» Check social media for the full schedule.