When noting down the major influences of music culture it is easy to be dazzled by the bright beauty of stardom. More often than not, it is those under the spotlight that glisten with enough intensity to keep the attention of the masses firmly trained on their expression. But while those in the glare of public attention are the welcoming facade of the sonic skyline, there is a steel of observers, diarists, stylists, documentarians and protagonists who provide the structure needed for lasting artistic change. As the firework of punk was launched into the air one man conducting the chaos was Don Letts.
A DJ, filmmaker, social commentator and artistic agitator, the life of Letts is a storied and stringent one. During the new documentary Rebel Dread takes a fierce look at the creator’s philosophy both within punk — where he operated as a pivotal influencer and provider of change — and in his life outside of music. It’s an 86 minute reminder that only the most authentic are capable of galvanising a broad group of artists.
“Punk rock’s a living thing,” says Letts, “something to look forward to, not look back on.” It’s a sentiment that feels somewhat lost on an audience directly tuning into the increasingly sepia-toned past of punk rock but still feels like a genuine mantra for the Rebel Dread himself. Becoming a part of the punk scene in the late-’70s as the music craze began to not only sweep a nation but splinter into differing factions, Letts’ south London home became a musical holy land for a range of artists from The Clash to the Sex Pistols.
John Lydon, the latter’s frontman, take pride in sharing his experiences with Letts. The Clash guitarist Mick Jones’ face beams as he too remembers the searing influence of Letts’ dub-heavy record collection and the many nights spent slowly influencing his band’s artistic output. Both artists would find inspiration within Letts’ ideologies and searing taste. It would seem that any time spent with Letts was worthwhile, a notion buoyed when delving into the Roxy’s DJ LPs and Super 8 footage.
Within these two threads of Letts’ long tapestry sits Rebel Dread. A mixture of these strings are furiously strummed across the doc, and with footage of The Clash and Sex Pistols playing live, the importance of the DJ’s reggae records and how they changed the musical landscape becomes clear. A resource that should never be diminished, this film provides a digestible, enjoyable and entertaining morsel of Letts’ larger collection.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the film is to see the boy turn into a man. Seeing the rebellious teen, one who literally set fire to his own classroom, turn anger and passion into a cultural scythe of creativity. It’s one that he still swings today, thrashing through the chaff to get to the golden brilliance of honest and authentic work. While the film is undeniably hued with nostalgia, it is Letts’ powerful intent to forever look forward that leaves a lasting imprint.