A new documentary, Rebel Dread, will examine the influence of Don Letts, the British filmmaker, and musician who captured some of the most significant footage of punk’s first wave and cofounded Big Audio Dynamite with the Clash’s Mick Jones.
“Punk rock’s a living thing,” Letts says in the film’s trailer. “It’s about turning problems into assets. And as a first-generation, British-born Black, that’s something I know a lot about.” The 30-second clip features footage of the Clash and England’s Black community in the Seventies. In addition to Letts’ own commentary, the film features interviews with Mick Jones, John Lydon, Letts’ ex-girlfriend and current Rough Trade Records co-owner Jeannette Lee, Massive Attack’s Daddy G, and many others.
The doc, directed by William E. Badgley (Here to be Heard: The Story of the Slits), will be available to stream and purchase digitally on Nov. 1. Letts will also take part in Q&A sessions at screening events at New York City’s Village East by Angelika on Oct. 24 and at Los Angeles’ the Grammy Museum on Nov. 1.
The film contrasts Letts’ experience as a Black Briton against some of England’s darkest moments, including politician Enoch Powell’s racist “Rivers of Blood” speech and the U.K. Home Office’s 2018 “hostile environment” immigration policy. Through it all, he worked to unite people.
In the Seventies, Letts was a DJ at London’s Roxy and co-managed Kings Road’s Acme Attractions, a clothing store that helped define the look of punk. As the scene broke out, he filmed performances by the Clash, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and many others. He was also instrumental in bringing together punks with the city’s reggae musicians. He also managed the Slits and directed all of the Clash’s videos for “London Calling” and “Rock the Casbah,” among others, as well as clips for Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, the Gap Band, Ratt, Ice-T, and many others. He co-founded Big Audio Dynamite in 1984 and has written music with Dreadzone.
“I’ve spent my life charging forward,” Letts says in Rebel Dread. “I’ve always hoped I’d be so busy that I wouldn’t have time to look back.”
Letts will release his first single as a solo artist on October 21, followed by the announcement of his first solo album, and he continues to host a BBC radio show and tour as a DJ.
To promote the film, Letts recently participated in a Q&A with former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, who gushes over Letts’ contribution to British punk and how it influenced musicians across the pond. “I was seeing parts of The Punk Rock Movie[Letts’ 1978 film] in copies on videos shown at punk-rock parties and gigs where they put the bed sheet against the wall,” Rollins tells him. “My friends and I, we’re on the East Coast of the United States so punk rock information from the U.K. is coming over the seas … and we’re looking at the Adverts or the Sex Pistols or the Clash, our jaws are on the floor. … Thankfully, we get a taste of that because of what you’re doing.”
“That’s all stuff I’ve realized with hindsight,” Letts replies. “And I’ve got to say, I’m honored to be part of that … thing where you’re passing on the energy that helped to make you who you are. And maybe it didn’t reach millions of people, but I always have this thing of, ‘Hey, it reaches the people it’s supposed to reach.’”