Released in 2020, Steve McQueen’s film series Small Ax traced the under-told story of black British life in 1970s and ’80s London. Rebel Dread, a documentary portrait of film-maker and raconteur Don Letts, might have been designed as a companion piece, so close is the biographical mapping. In exactly, the son of Windrush-era Jamaican parents grows up a bright but disengaged Brixton schoolboy; later comes a westward drift to Notting Hill, constant harassment from the police offset by the power of music.
But Letts is also a true one-off, albeit with a wealth of cultural history contained in his highly singular life. Back in the early ’70s, he also took in the modish King’s Road. There he encountered Vivienne Westwood and future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. An entrée to the dawning punk scene followed, although with no actual punk records to play yet, his DJ sets instead introduced dub reggae to the Pistols, The Clash and sundry other misfit white kids.
For Letts it was the first great cross-pollination of a creative life spent mixing messages. The result, as briskly rendered here (directed by William E Badgley), would be his role as the connective thread between, for instance, New York hip-hop, Namibian independence and the films of Nicolas Roeg; a notable maker of music videos in their groundbreaking heyday; and in the language of underground London, that most glorious thing to be – “a face”.
In UK cinemas from March 4