Painting the town dread

Documentary about broadcaster, DJ and film-maker Don Letts is a brilliant journey through social history and a fascinating peek into a cultural movement

Friday, 4th March — By Dan Carrier

Don Letts on the New York subway 1981 CREDIT LISA JONES

Don Letts on the New York subway in 1981. Photo: Lisa Jones

Directed by Bill Badgley
Certificate: 12a

WHERE would you start if you had to draw up a list of influences that have created our city’s contemporary culture? An impossible task, perhaps, but one that this wonderful documentary about the life and times of Don Letts seeks to explore.

Rebel Dread tells the broadcaster, DJ and film-maker’s story, and offers a valuable insight into how shared experiences unites communities and with visionary outriders, we can remember what binds us together instead of what others say should cleave us apart.

Don was born in 1956, a year after his parents had moved to London from Jamaica.

As he recalls in the film, he did not face racism as child – he and his school friends – white and black – had no concept of race, he felt.

That lasted until the River of Blood speech by Enoch Powell in 1968 – and from then on, Don states, divisions were sown.

Don’s story is set against a musical backdrop he has become synonymous with, showing how he stood at the crossroads of divergent cultural movements and helped knit them together. Through music, he has spent a lifetime considering politics and the artistic and cultural response to it.

He coupled the Jamaican culture he had grown up in at home – and had been part of a Brixton community who fostered memories of the world their parents – with the climate of working-class youth dissatisfaction.

It made Don a key player in a number of movements, including punk and reggae, straddling the two genres that found a common ground.

Despite Powell and the right trying to turn white working-class people against their black neighbours, Don and his friends came to a similar position – a sense of powerlessness, of economic exclusion, and a dislocation between the popular culture, made up of processed prog rock and glitzy disco, many did not relate to it.

Don and his generation were ready for something new, and as this film reveals, the conditions were ripe for a youth explosion.

Don’s story is also told by a range of fascinating voices: Norman Jay, Jazzie B, Leo Williams of Dreadzone, musician Dennis Bovell, The Clash’s Mick Jones, Jeannette Lee of Rough Trade Records, and his brother Des Coy.

As well as a brilliant journey through recent social history, a brilliant peek into a formative cultural movement that has created modern Britain, Rebel Dread not only of course is packed with amazing music, but never-viewed-before film shot by Don of artists such as Bob Marley, The Clash and The Sex Pistols.

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