Rebel Dread


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Rebel Dread
"One of the most satisfying viewing experiences of the year to date."

Although it’s often characterised as nihilistic and purely oppositional, the impact of the punk movement on culture, society and the way that ordinary people thought about the world might be seen as a renaissance of sorts. If so, there could be no more notable renaissance man than Don Letts. His achievements are so manifold that it’s difficult to sum them up under any more conventional label. He’s a filmmaker, musician, DJ, TV presenter, fashion icon, outspoken thinker. It is perhaps because of this variety that nobody has previously attempted to take on his story on film. Veteran music documentarian William E Badgley, best known for Here To Be Heard: The Story Of The Slits, crams an enormous amount into barely an hour and a half of film, creating one of the most satisfying viewing experiences of the year to date.

When the subject of a film has an executive producer credit, there is always a danger that the documentarian’s work will be compromised. Letts’ no nonsense approach provides some reassurance here, however, and he doesn’t pretend that he lived a life free from mistakes or made all the best choices. From setting fire to his desk at school in an attempt to get attention to an unwise early marriage, he owns it, and recognises how it has contributed to shaping the person he is today.

Letts is perhaps first and foremost a storyteller, a keen historian, and his storytelling forms the backbone of the film. He talks about the impact of racism in his childhood and how much worse it became after Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, delivered when he was 12-years-old. He reflects on discovering rock n’ roll at a Who concert and getting into the scene proper through Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, hanging around their shop until they gave him a job. On the reaction of his parents: “They’d sent me to grammar school and expected great things from me but here I was sort of going down this different road.” On meeting Jeanette Lee, who became his girlfriend and took him to see The Clash, prompting him to swap his entire Beatles collection for a cool American car the following day.

Impulsive this may have been, but this isn’t just another wild and wacky rock n’ roll story. Letts’ life took a different direction when he decided to buy a video camera and start filming gigs and parties which seemed important to him but which no-one else was documenting. The importance of this contribution to historical archives of early punk has been huge. Much of his personal archive still hasn’t made it into the public sphere so there are some previously unseen treats here for those with an interest in the period. This initially directionless recording took on a new dimension when rumours that he was making a punk rock movie gave him the idea to do so, adding another string to his bow and enabling the punk movement to expand into another medium.

Letts’ story is, of course, not limited to the story of punk, even though he seemed to retain more of its core sensibility than most of his peers when he refused to sell out after it began to be corporatised. This documentary also addresses his impact on the birth of hip hop in New York, his experimental work with Big Audio Dynamite and his efforts, over decades, to bring together different musical styles and musicians with very different backgrounds in order to create something new.

Alongside all of this career-focused material, there are episodes in which Letts talks about his personal life and his efforts to understand himself better and build meaningful connections. There’s footage of his trip to Namibia, where he thought he might find his roots and instead found himself struggling to connect with a radically different way of life, leading him to reassess aspects of his identity and the way others see him. The film, which is lively throughout and split up with graphic novel style inserts which neatly capture its style and character, grows more reflective towards the end, but that’s not to say that it becomes sentimental. Letts is interested in addressing a story bigger than just his own, and ends with a plain spoken message which is likely to unnerve US censors but gets his point across perfectly.

Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2022
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Rebel Dread packshot
The story of Don Letts, the iconic cultural mover and shaker, filmmaker, musician and raconteur.

Director: William E Badgley

Writer: William E Badgley

Starring: Don Letts, Jazzie B, Norman Jay, Mick Jones, Jeanette Lee, John Lydon, Grant Marshall

Year: 2020

Runtime: 86 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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