PUNK’S EXPLOSIVE, ENERGISING EFFECT ON MUSIC AND FASHION IS WELL-DOCUMENTED – WHILE ITS CINEMATIC LEGACY IS LESS FAMILIAR. FILMMAKER, DJ AND MUSICIAN DON LETTS WAS THERE AT THE BEGINNING WITH A SUPER 8 CAMERA IN HIS HAND AND THE RESULTS OF HIS EFFORTS, “THE PUNK ROCK MOVIE”, FEATURED ALL THE SEMINAL ACTS OF THE AGE. THIS SUMMER HE CURATED “PUNK ON FILM”, A SERIES OF BFI-SPONSORED SCREENINGS, AN ECLECTIC MIX OF FILMS ABOUT PUNKS AND FILM THAT INSPIRED THEM.
Looking back to look forward, Letts first considered the films he saw as a first generation black British boy from Brixton who found himself at the centre of the punk revolution in 1976. Not all of his suggestions made the cut, but they illustrate the vital influences which were at play in the mid-1970s.
Letts’ own journey into filmmaking was inspired by the 1972 Jimmy Cliff film, The Harder They Come, which introduced reggae to the wider world. “Then punk rock happens, with the DIY ethic.” he says, “My white mates were picking up guitars, and the energy was such that I picked up a Super 8 movie camera and started filming what was interesting to my eyes. Luckily I seemed to have good taste – I remember reading in the NME ‘Don Letts, Roxy DJ, is making a punk rock film’ and I thought, ‘That’s a good idea. I’ll call it a film’.
Letts was also inspired by Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren who helped him join the countercultural dots. It was Malcolm that made him understand that these cultural things he was so enamoured with didn’t happen in isolation, they had a continuity and a legacy and a tradition – that’s why punk was important. It wasn’t just a soundtrack. It inspired a lot of people to do different things. It was a complete sub-culture! And here we are, 40 years on, still going on about it…
Punk, now, is a heritage industry, but Letts concedes that revisiting films such as Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and The Clash’s fictionalised documentary Rude Boy offered fresh perspectives.
In the original list for the BFI-sponsored screenings there was a range of stuff that reflected that spirit – a new way of looking at things, Jodorowsky’s El Topo, there was Buñuel and Kenneth Anger. John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Texas Chainsaw Massacre that was a big punk favourite! Lets recalls that The Clash were always digging things like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, while he usually went with Vivienne Westwood to see Fassbinder and Wim Wenders movies.
As well as recording the meteoric progress of punk, Letts contributed to the musical development of the post-punk period, by bringing reggae and dub to the punk party.
“We were vibing off each other. In black culture, the two ways we’ve had to express ourselves are through what we wear and what we listen to, and that’s part of the working class music scene as well !”.