Letts go to the movies: An Interview with Punk Filmmaker Don Letts

The inimitable Don Letts is definitely an underrated figure in the history of the punk rock movement. In addition to having filmed a handful of full-length films and documentaries and over 300 music videos for seminal bands like The Clash, PiL and more unlikely outfits like Ratt and the Gap Band, Don was also a premier DJ for the legendary Roxy Club.

[Don Letts]By exclusively playing reggae at the Roxy, Don had a hand in turning the English punk scene on to the sound of Jamaica as evidenced in the sounds of The Clash and The Slits (who he also briefly managed). Despite Don's status, he proved to be one of the most humble and thoughtful people I've had the pleasure of speaking with. We sat down to talk about his new feature documentary, Punk: Attitude, among other things.

SLUG: Just to start off with, what brought about the idea for the Punk: Attitude film?
DL: Well, in all honesty, I was approached with the idea: "another punk documentary." My instinct was, "Oh God, not that again!" And then I went away, and I'm like, "Well, what is it? Why do people keep looking back on this thing?" And I realized that what we were talking about was a kind of a counterculture. And by its very nature, the over-emphasis of the 70s aspect of it trivialized the bigger idea. But counterculture is an ongoing dynamic. In other words, it didn't start in the late 70s; nor did it end there. Then all of the sudden, the product took on a kind of different relevance to me in that, rather than punk being something that we were looking back on, it could be something that we can look forward to. Hence, my story starts with Jerry Lee Lewis jumping up and down on the piano and goes right through to Nirvana and beyond ... sort of examines where we are today with the legacy of punk rock.

It's funny, 'cause if you kind of look around at the social climate today, it's like punk rock never happened. I don't know what it's like in America, but certainly in the U.K., it's like young people have forgotten there was life before MTV or Pop Idol, which I think you call American Idol. They've forgotten about that kind of individuality–that kind of empowerment. And then all of the sudden I'm like, "Not only would I like to make this, I really want to make this!"

SLUG: So do you feel that it's one small part of a continuing broad thing? Like THE counterculture would be ...
DL: Yeah! Like in my film, the hippy movement's part of punk rock. But obviously, what it became, or what it ended up being, is far removed from the initial countercultural movement. But the same thing happened with punk! I mean, within about two years in this country, punk got pretty stupid. It became, as I describe it, very "tabloid." But all the countercultures end up being absorbed and become popular culture anyway. Something has to come along and rail against that again, you know what I mean? I think it has a lot to do with every generation needing its own soundtrack. It's not so much about saying new things; there's certain things that need to be said over and over and over again but just in a different way.

SLUG: One thing I have noticed is that in a lot of historical accounts of punk, there seems to be sort of a time lapse from the early 80s to the early 90s. What do you feel might be the explanation for that?
DL: Well, doesn't Thurston Moore hit it on the head? He says that basically, the media stops paying attention to all these things. It goes deep underground. Therefore, there's not a lot of documentation. But this thing's bubbling and happening in little pockets all over ... let's say ... America. And it's bubbling like a pressure cooker, so it erupts as sort of typified by Nirvana. I think they say clearly in the film that it didn't come out of a void [brief talk of the misconceived nihilistic attitude that punk was perceived to contain].

My thing is, when I saw punk rock come along, it inspired me to pick up a Super 8 camera and get involved. And basically, I'm hoping, naively, that when people see this film, X amount of them will go, "Wow, I can do that!" But what I don't want them to do is look at the film and go, "Oh, wasn't it great back then," because "back then" was once now, you know.

SLUG: You actually brushed upon what I wanted to ask you about next. How did punk get you interested in filmmaking?
DL: Simple really. I mean, like I say, I saw the [Sex] Pistols and The Clash. And unlike bands before, they didn't encourage that fan-worship thing. They made you want to get involved. They broke down that wall of "we're the band and you're the audience." And it wasn't a spectator sport. So all around me, people are picking up guitars and very soon, the stages fall out. But the energy was such that I wanted to pick up something too, so I picked up a Super 8 camera because I'd seen things like The Harder They Come and Nic Roeg's Walkabout. My brain kind of moved toward expressing myself visually. Obviously, I was into music like everyone else. But for whatever reason, instead of picking up a guitar, I picked up a Super 8 camera and with the inspiration of the whole punk DIY ethos, I went about reinventing myself as a filmmaker. 'Cause one thing about the punk thing is that it taught me that a good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected.

Punk: Attitude premiers on the Independent Film Channel Mon., July 4 at 9 p.m. ET/10 p.m. PT.