In Review

Film review: Rebel Dread

Entertaining documentary about the cultural polymath Don Letts

To spend 86 minutes in the company of Don Letts – DJ, film-maker, musician, social commentator and “thoroughly engaging raconteur” – is an intense pleasure, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. As this “gripping” documentary explains, Letts was a rebellious kid who, after literally setting fire to his classroom desk, played a vital role in London’s music scene in the late 1970s. 

As a DJ at the Roxy in Covent Garden, he helped create an unlikely alliance between punks and Rastafarians, and struck “a powerful cultural blow against racism”. Having used his Super-8 camera to shoot memorable footage of The Clash and the Sex Pistols, he then directed music videos, formed Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones, and made films. He speaks eloquently about punk rock – a living genre, in his view – but everything he says is “a manifesto for humanity and creativity”. 

Narrated by the man himself, Rebel Dread “communicates that a life spent chasing the next great song is a life well lived”, said John Nugent in Empire. Letts has a knack of finding himself in the right place at the right time, and the film evokes an “incandescent” era when music, fashion, politics and art were all in radical flux. It’s vibrant, fast and funny, if a little one-sided. 

It does sometimes verge on hagiography, agreed Saskia Baron on The Arts Desk, but Letts has had such a dynamic career that the lack of critical voices is forgivable. There’s a wealth of great archive footage and memorable anecdotes from the likes of John Lydon. The section on Letts’s first visit to Jamaica to explore his roots and meet the reggae bands he idolised is particularly fascinating. This is an entertaining gallop through an “extraordinary” life.

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