Film Reviews

Rebel Dread review: Dir. William E. Badgley (2022)

The first three words in this Rockumentary about Don Letts are “Punk rock is…

Directed by William E. Badgley, and narrated by The Rebel Dread himself, the filmmaker, DJ and all-round top geezer tells his story as a self-described “4th generation British-born black” as if you’re sitting across the table to him in a boozer with two full pints between you. 

Don’s tale is one of the most important stories in the history of British popular subculture and specifically Punk Rock. The man is literally an icon of the era.

The footage of early 70’s Rastas walking the streets of Brixton while the punk national anthem plays in the background, combined with the talking heads setting out the ‘pre-rivers of blood’ opening act paints a warm enthusiastic picture of the capital. A place where, Letts says, “left to our own devices this multicultural generation of misfits just got on”. That is until the turn of events that lead to harassment, racial tension, then inevitably riots coincides with young Don seeing The Who play live. And that’s the moment his rebel touch paper is lit.  

Don admits he had a reputation as a freak for his outlandish outfits and being “into that Bowie shit” before the punk wars kicked off. Someone clearly had a blast picking all the best photos from the archives and gets to show us Don in sharp suits, turtlenecks, adventurous hair and amazing shades. All from the bleeding edge of 70’s fashion. He was what (dub reggae DJ legend) Norman Jay describes as ‘a proper lady killer’ and it shows.

From his teens as a shop assistant at Acme Attractions through his ‘rude boy with a camera glued to his hand’ era before his time as a musician himself, there is a wealth of incredible footage of Don and his circle (all names most rock and roll archaeologists know) cutting about looking cooler than cool. Visually the film is a rich seam of excellent jackets, famous iconic shots and vintage cars.

Don is also gracious enough to credit Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren as his educators on subculture, and how the next cool thing always has roots. If Don on the cover of Black-Market Clash (facing down a battalion of coppers in monochrome screen print) or The Punk Rock Movie isn’t enough for you, try the fact he shot many of the most iconic promos of his era. The Pretenders, The Pogues, Shabba Ranks, PiL, Black Grape, Musical Youth, Ratt and Elvis Costello are but a few of the names he took to MTV. Through his many lives and many wives, rock and roll owes Don.

He opened doors, he built bridges. He was the one who got Joe Strummer back in with Mick Jones one last time before he went off mixing with The Beastie Boys, Gil Scott Heron, Zavid and even still today on BBC Radio 6 Music, he’s throwing in the old school with the hot new sounds.

Punk Rock is…? Don Letts. The Rebel Dread. 

Rebel Dread comes to UK cinemas from 4 March:


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