Review: documentary ‘Rebel Dread’ charts Don Letts’ remarkable life from punk to filmmaker, BAD & beyond

Don Letts has been at the right place at the right time a number of times in his life. He grew up in Brixton in South London, was friends with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in the mid-'70s, worked at fashionable store Acme Attractions, became the DJ at punk club The Roxy where he spun dub reggae before there were punk records to play, and began filming shows at The Roxy which led to his 1978 concert film The Punk Rock Movie and a successful career as music video director, working with everyone from Bob Marley and Musical Youth to The Gap Band to Ratt.

His long friendship with The Clash -- he made most of their videos, and that's him at the 1976 Notting Hill riots on the cover of Black Market Clash -- resulted in Mick Jones asking Don to join his new band, Big Audio Dynamite, which carried him through the '80s, and since then he was a member of '90s BAD-offshoot Dreadzone. He's continued as filmmaker and DJ, too, and last year released the excellent memoir There and Black Again.

His remarkable life is also the subject of great new documentary, Rebel Dread, made by William E. Badgley (Here to be Heard: The Story of The Slits ). Don is front and center, all but serving as narrator, monologuing more than being interviewed. He's not sugarcoating anything either, though, as the film follows his through the racial tensions of the '70s, though the punk scene, the '80s, infidelities, fatherhood and beyond. Even those who have followed Letts' career over the years are likely to learn some amazing factoid they didn't know.

The filmmakers interviewed many friends, collaborators and fans for the film, including Mick Jones (The Clash, BAD), Paul Simonon (The Clash), John Lydon (Sex Pistols, PiL), Jazzy B (Soul II Soul), Daddy G (Massive Attack), producer Dennis Bovell, writer/musician Vivien Goldman, and more. The main draw, though, apart from getting to hear Letts tell stories for 90 minutes, is the treasure trove of footage that Don shot over the years, much of which has never been seen before by the general public. That includes the "back to mine" parties Don and Leo Williams would host at their place in Forest Hill after Roxy shows where you see a very young Billy Idol, Shane McGowan, Mick Jones, Siouxsie Sioux and more all hanging out on Don's floor; the trip he and Lydon took to Jamaica with Virgin Records head Richard Branson to sign new reggae artists; as well as footage of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer reuniting to work on Big Audio Dynamite's second album, No. 10 Upping St.

"When I do something I feel a need to justify the space that it occupies," Don says late in the film. "I've made films about things that mean something, man, that deserve that space and can actually help to move things forward. I'm always trying to make a film about myself through these people, and I've always been gravitated to artists who aren't defined by their color. I feel that these people are doing something worth passing on because they're part of me." He adds that he tries to make films that might be something to look back on but also "take you forward." As Rebel Dread shows, he lives this advice to this day.

Rebel Dread is available to rent on all streaming services starting November 1. Head here for more info and watch the trailer below.