Posts tagged as 'Film'
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Wednesday, 10th Oct 2012
Clash City Rockers - Part 1
Out of The Clash guys, I got to know Paul Simonon first through our mutual love of reggae. We’d swap mix tapes, which was our way of communicating and serious currency back in the day. I had tapes of Mikey Dread’s late night radio show in Jamaica called Dread at the Controls, which I lent to Paul. The show played reggae exclusively and whenever it was on in Jamaica the crime rate went down! Mikey’s knowledge, approach and experience of making reggae music was invaluable to the Clash during the Sandinista sessions, and the end results of his contributions were stunning, with tracks like “Bankrobber” and “One More Time”. People make quite a big deal out of the punky/reggae connection, but what were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones listening to? It was black music. It’s just that to the uninitiated it wasn’t that obvious within their music, but with the Clash it was right up front. It was in their lyrics, in their bass-lines and their subject matter. Not only did the Clash cover Willi Williams’ “Armagideon Time”, Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and Toots and the Maytals “Pressure Drop”, they name checked Prince Far-I on “Clash City Rockers”, Dr Alimantado on “Rudy Can’t Fail”, the Abyssinians “Sattamassaganna” on “Jimmy Jazz” and Dillinger, Leroy Smart, Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson on “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”. It made me immensely proud that my culture was being represented by these guys instead of being lost within self-interpretation. With the Clash it was not white reggae; it was punk and reggae. Their songs brought some of their culture to my culture. Reggae spoke in a language the punks could identify with. It was the anti-fashion fashion, the rebel stance, and importantly the fact that reggae was a kind of musical reportage, talking about things that mattered. Songs like “Money in My Pocket”, “I Need a Roof” and “Chant Down Babylon” struck an obvious chord with “the youth”.
I think one of the advantages that I had when I started making the music videos was that none of the bands that I worked with had aspirations of becoming actors or film-makers, of which the Clash were the best example. They just made music and let me get on with my job as filmmaker. They were obviously aware of my work with The Punk Rock Movie and the PiL video and chose me to be the man for their debut single ‘London Calling’. Now the punk look was supposed to be about individuality but after the Bill Grundy episode with the Pistols it soon became a uniform. The Clash were smart enough to see it was painting them into a corner. Punk was supposed to be about freedom and liberation, and all of a sudden you had the ‘punk police’ saying, “you can’t wear this, you can’t do that, you should sound like this.” The sound of ‘London Calling’ was the first real challenge to those punk shackles, throwing soul, reggae and rockabilly into the equation. It was cool seeing them break out of the restrictions that punk had very quickly developed. The Clash had also changed their look to an East End gangster style. They were always image-conscious rather than fashion conscious.
Mikey Dread, R.I.P
For “London Calling” I decided to shoot the video on a pier in Battersea on the River Thames in the afternoon and wanted cameras on a boat to get the right angles. Now I didn’t know anything about tides and when we got there to set up it was out and the cameras were fifteen feet too low. Then there was the current. After setting each shot up we found that we were moving further and further away from the pier. By the time we had sorted out all these problems, it started to piss down with rain and it was nighttime. After about three takes I just wanted to get out of there. I am now told that the “London Calling” video is a classic. It was a textbook punk situation, turning your problems into assets. Around this time the Clash had decided against playing large venues and were due to play at the Lewisham Odeon in South East London. I took the opportunity to shoot the “Bankrobber” video in the afternoon before the gig. Prompted by the title I decided to quickly get some shots of Johnny Green and Topper’s drum roadie Baker running out of a bank on Lewisham High Street with bags of money dressed as villains. This was intercut with the Clash playing “Bankrobber” live at the Odeon with Mikey Dread at the controls. As I was filming the last shots of Baker and Green running to the back door of the Odeon, two police cars came round the corner with their sirens blazing. Armed police jumped out and had Baker, Green and myself pinned against the wall. Johnny Green told them that we were art students working on a project. For the “Call Up”, a song about dodging the draft, we originally wanted to shoot the video in a cemetery but the local council refused permission and at the very last minute we ended up shooting at former sixties pop star Chris Farlowe’s warehouse—which was full of military memorabilia and equipment as he was a renowned collector. The song was about registration for the draft in America—a subject dear to Mick Jones since he had attended a draft demonstration in New York. The setting for the video shoot was just perfect—another example of turning problems into assets.
In the aftermath of the initial punk explosion it looked like the major record companies had regained control and were having it all their own way. The Pistols had imploded, the Clash had finally signed to CBS after months of negotiations and I had reinvented myself as a filmmaker. So it was a period of death and re-birth for all, and everyone looked to the Clash to take things to another level.
Part two of 'Clash City Rockers' will be available to read soon. Click HERE for all posts by Don Letts.
As part of our 60 Year Anniversary Celebrations, Don Letts has created six short films exploring British music and street style. The Don Letts Subculture Films are now avilable to watch on Fred Perry Subculture HERE.
Wednesday, 3rd Oct 2012
London's Barbican Centre will host the 9th annual Bicycle Film Festival this weekend, with a series of screenings and events taking place in the city. With British cycling riding high after a summer of successes, the festival is perfectly timed for a gathering of new and established cycling fans.
The festival programme features both feature length and short films, with highlights including the World Premiere of Line of Sight, directed by Benny Zenga and shot by legendary cycling cinematographer Lucas Brunelle. British actor Timothy Spall stars in Justin Chadwick’s Boy, a short silent film that explores love and loss as a father struggles with the death of his son, who is killed whilst cycling on a country road.
Running alongside the festival will be a diverse selection of special events, including the annual Bike Polo Tournament and a BMX jam hosted by Albion BMX magazine. The festival, which originated in New York, is now a global event that will travel to over 25 cities this year, from London to Tokyo, Moscow to Mexico City. From its beginnings in 2001, the festival’s aim has been to celebrate the on-going relationship between creative and bicycle communities, uniting road cycling, mountain biking, fixed gear, BMX and cyclocross in a shared passion.
The London leg of the 2012 Bicycle Film Festival takes place from October 4th - 7th.
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.