Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 15
Wednesday, 12th Sep 2012
Dread with a Camera
What I picked up most from mixing with the punks was a new way of approaching things—the DIY ethic. I came to realise that a good idea attempted was better than a bad idea perfected. So with the birth of Punk Rock I literally reinvented myself as “Don Letts the film-maker”. My next effort was another rough n’ ready venture called Rankin’ Movie. It featured Linton Kwesi Johnson, The Congos, Culture, Big Youth and many others. I filmed Prince Far I playing at Dingwalls with his Chelsea FC bag that he claimed was filled with ganja, and Dr Alimantado bursting into a full performance of “Born For A Purpose” in the middle of Daddy Kool’s reggae shop. There was no narrative to Rankin’ Movie it was held it together with performances juxtaposed with footage of things like Jamaican police shaking down a car load of Rastas in Kingston with footage of the Notting Hill riots in London.
There were scenes of U-Roy smoking his massive chalice and Tappa Zukie with a gun-toting brother who was shot dead a couple of weeks later. Most of the material was filmed on my first trip to Jamaica with John Lydon. Rankin’ Movie generated a lot of publicity for me which helped when I later approached Michael White with a script I’d written called Dread at the Controls. It was directly inspired by radical poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Five Nights of Bleeding” which he recorded under the pseudonym of Poet & Roots. Released in 1977 it really summed up life as a young black man growing up in the decaying and violent inner cities. As it turned out my film was never got made, as around the same time Franco Rosso had just made ‘Babylon’. It was about a South London sound system in late-seventies Britain called Ital Lion Sound System, and the people who passionately ran it against all the odds. Brinsley Forde, Aswad’s singer and child actor was the lead and there’s some great footage of Jah Shaka in session. Dennis Bovell put the soundtrack together utilising tracks like Aswad’s mighty “Warrior Charge”. Even though it’s a good film, Babylon didn’t make much money, so Dread was shelved.
It was The Harder They Come that made me want to express myself visually and I’d always wanted to make a movie that reflected the London that I knew. Ironically my first feature film Dancehall Queen, directly inspired by The Harder They Come was shot in Kingston Jamaica in 1997 and made possible by Island Records’ Chris Blackwell. Blackwell was the also the man behind The Harder They Come. Perry Henzell (R.I.P) did a great job of directing a brutally honest depiction of ghetto life in Jamaica. Jimmy Cliff, the star of the film, was not a trained actor, so that also added an element of realism.
Cliff plays a character called Ivan, who comes to Kingston looking for work. He finds it impossible to get a job, so he decides to make music. He quickly realises that the recording industry is just as corrupt as the world outside of it and finds himself becoming a Jesse James-type hero. When Ivan first comes to Kingston he goes to the cinema and gets caught up in the on-screen drama; but the local wide-boy, Jose, tells him that the hero cannot die until the last reel. Ivan goes and lives the movie for real and dies in a shoot out in the last reel. It is a great scene that parallels the whole movie. When Jose is run out of town by Ivan, all through the altercation between them “Pressure Drop” by the Maytals is simmering underneath. The way Henzell interweaves the music within the storyline is remarkable. The marriage of the soundtrack and narrative in The Harder They Come left an impression on me that has inspired my life and work. It was telling how closely I could relate to The Harder They Come, even though it was far removed from my experience as a black youth in the UK. I liked the idea that The Harder They Come raised awareness of Jamaican culture and entertained at the same time. It must have had the same impact on me as Rebel Without a Cause must have had on young white kids in the fifties.
Now growing up in the UK not only was I exposed to the obvious American influences but I was also totally captivated by the films of European film makers like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who also influenced and inspired Martin Scorsese. They made films that had an element of fantasy to them but were misunderstood at the time by film critics and audiences alike. Winston Churchill even tried to ban their film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. For the most part it was crafted storytelling, the technical aspects of their films were so intricate, unless you are tuned into that stuff it is hard to notice (check The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus). The abrupt end of Powell’s career can be pinned down to one film, Peeping Tom. An uncompromising portrait of madness, it is the story of a young man who murders women, using a movie camera to film their dying expressions of terror. Powell cleverly makes a sober study of sexual violence, as well as a meditation on voyeurism set in twilight landscape of backstreet London. The film opened to scathing reviews in April 1960. Years later, Scorsese heralded the film as an English classic that said all there is to say about directing.
They say the true sign of genius is inconsistency and this could well apply to another of my favourite directors—Nic Roeg. Watching ‘Walkabout’ made me acutely aware of different ways of telling a story. Sure you might need a beginning, middle and an end but not necessarily in that order! There’s some great examples of this in his film Don’t Look Now and the Roeg classic Performance. It’s a visually compelling and disturbing look at two diverse sides of 1960s London; the criminal underworld and hippie culture. Robert Fox plays a gangster fugitive who takes refuge in the Notting Hill home of Turner (played by Mick Jagger) a semi-retired bisexual rock musician. Turner becomes infatuated with Chas’ violent charisma and his “vital energy” he himself feels he has lost. As the title suggests, the film is all about performances and role reversal. Full of Roeg’s visual flourishes it’s still my favourite London movie and features one of the best soundtracks ever. Roeg continued challenging the industry with The Man Who Fell to Earth, with the inspired choice of David Bowie playing an alien visiting earth, telling a tale of how the American dream had been hijacked by consumerism, and had a deeper message than your usual sci-fi rubbish.
I learned the technical aspects of film-making from seeing the beauty of Powell and Pressburger’s work or watching the Ealing films like Passport to Pimlico along side the American classics. But it was with the inspiration of The Harder They Come combined with a punk attitude that I became - Don Letts the film director.
Read all guest posts by Don Letts HERE.