November 9, 2022
When the history of punk music is discussed, the usual ‘hall of fame’ names pop up— The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones and Blondie. Behind-the-scenes players like Don Letts are sometimes overlooked.
The London-born Letts, whose parents are Jamaican, gets his deserved spotlight in Rebel Dread, a film tracing his career to the 1970s when he was part of the punk movement that shook the British class system. His work as a film-maker, music video director and activist are covered in detail.
Rebel Dread — which had recent screenings in New York and Los Angeles — is directed by William Badgley and co-produced by Phil Hunt and Mark Vennis. It contains interviews with some of Letts’ longtime friends and collaborators including Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash, John Lydon of The Sex Pistols and fellow British journalists Chris Salewicz, and Vivien Goldman.
Letts, who played a major role in bringing the punk and reggae communities together in the United Kingdom, spoke to Forbes magazine about the project which was officially released last November. Last week, it played at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
“From what I can tell, my only discernible talent is having good taste, and apparently, in the 21st century, that’s some serious currency. But joking aside, the whole process [of making the film] has given my work meaning and that is rewarding,” he said.
Letts is best known in Jamaica for directing Dancehall Queen, the 1997 movie starring Paul Campbell and Audrey Reid. He also co-directed One Love, a 2003 movie starring Ky-Mani Marley and Cherine Anderson.
His parents settled in London in the mid-1950s and as a black youth in a white country, Letts encountered bouts of racism. While colour prejudice in the UK escalated during the 1970s, the punks’ embrace of reggae and Rastafari made the dreadlocked Letts their kindred brother.
Letts’ indiscriminate tastes in music has won him friends in rock, pop and reggae. His skill as a film-maker earned him slots as director of music videos for The Clash, Musical Youth and Ratt.
Rebel Dread has had screenings throughout the UK as well as in Ireland. The film has got consistently strong reviews for its depiction of a bona fide punk/reggae icon.
“We were like-minded rebels. We were outsiders. People often say to me, ‘Well, what did punk get out of reggae?’ What punk got out of reggae was the basslines, as you can hear in some of The Clash tunes and The Slits tunes and later on with Public Image Ltd. They liked the kind of musical reportage quality of the lyrics. On the other side of that coin, people say, ‘What did reggae get out of it?’ And what reggae got was exposure. That’s all it needed because the brothers and sisters could do the rest themselves, and it was on the back of the punk rock explosion that reggae entered the international arena,” Letts told Forbes.
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