Saturday 5 March 2022

REBEL DREAD - Glasgow Film Festival review

Rebel Dread tells the story of photographer, DJ, musician and filmmaker Don Letts. Fronted by the man himself, this documentary charts the many twists and turns throughout Letts's life that saw him go from manager of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's shop, Acme Attractions, to touring the world as a filmmaker & musician, and beyond.

It's become something of a cliche to soundtrack any archival footage of London in the 1970s with The Clash's London Calling, but for once given Letts's connection with the band (directing a number of music videos for them, including London Calling), it's appropriate. Over images of civil unrest, Letts narrates his early life in Brixton where he immediately stood out as a flashy dresser and cool looking guy, vying for and getting the attention of the local cultural elite. It's a lively retelling of his life story, from chubby teenager (or as his brother Desmond ruthlessly describes, "a fat motherfucker") to DJ at The Roxy at the height of punk, to eventually filming the bands on stage and turning that into a highly successful career directing music videos, until Letts decided he wanted a piece of that stardom, co-founding Big Audio Dynamite with ex-The Clash member, Mick Jones.

An affectionate look at Letts' life and varied career - where the film falters is the unavoidable problem of having Letts tell his own story. Sure, he's in the position to tell it better than anyone else, but there's the inescapable feeling that he's told these stories so many times that these are the carefully curated versions of the truth. He's a great orator and fantastic at building his own myth, but serving as exec producer and main storyteller, Letts is in clear control of what information were given, and crucially, what we're not. It's not completely a self-aggrandising, back-slapping affair - most notably when Letts reckons with his role as an absent parent whilst touring the world, coupled with his infidelity - but it teeters on the precipice of it, mercifully pulled away at the right moment with additional important voices from his life, chief among them Mick Jones, and Letts's former partner, Jeannette Lee of Public Image Ltd.

At its most revealing and personal when it gets to Letts search for his roots, kickstarted by a trip to Jamaica with John Lydon, it's here where Letts's cultural commentator mask slips the most, offering something that goes some way into distilling the man and his relentless drive for success, approval and legitimacy as a Black, British man working with the biggest names in punk. He's a genuinely fascinating subject, with a life like no other that has almost been engineered by Letts by chance, thanks to his unwavering bravery and ability to build upon the connections he's made in his life, such as how he became friends with Bob Marley in London, largely through force of willing it to happen.

In a career that saw Letts take a long time to decide what path he wanted to follow - DJ, band manager, photographer, musician, filmmaker - this film establishes that he was all those things at any given moment, and capable of doing it well. He estimates he made around 400 music videos for PiL, The Clash and more - let's not forget Musical Youth's Pass the Dutchie - and Rebel Dread proves that Letts's has an astounding level of intelligence, creatively and bravery. I certainly wouldn't write him off playing another important role in music, should he choose he wants it.



Rebel Dread screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival and is now on general release. More information about the festival can be found here.

No comments:

Post a Comment