DON LETTS speaking as part of the KUUMBA festival in Harbourfront Centre's Brigantine Room (235 Queens Quay West), tonight (Thursday, February 2), 7 pm. $10, students $5, includes screening of GIL SCOTT-HERON: THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED . Screenings of DANCEHALL QUEEN (2 pm), SUN RA: BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (4 pm) and PUNK: ATTITUDE (6 pm) in the Studio Theatre (235 Queens Quay West), Saturday (February 4). Free. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
Entrepreneurial filmmaker/dj Don Letts has always been a little sharper than your average hustler.
When Letts's hang-around mates in the Sex Pistols and the Clash started causing a ruckus, instead of trading the dub reggae records he'd spin at the Roxy for a guitar, he shrewdly stood a safe distance from the nightly gob-fest and documented the punk explosion with a Super 8 movie camera.
Now that many of punk's original players are dead, burnt out or comical caricatures of themselves, Letts is left to tell their story.
"Every five years there's another punk rock revival," recites Letts, switching into media soundbite mode, "and somebody comes along and says, 'Don, we'd like to do a movie about punk rock.' My reaction is now, 'Oh no, not this again.'
"What happens is that each successive project attempts to trivialize something very important to me by turning it into some fad about safety pins, mohawks and nihilism. By boxing punk into this one moment in history, you negate the fact that it's part of this larger continuum. If it happened once, it can happen again."
Since the DJ and Big Audio Dynamite co-founder is also a budding film auteur, he put together a grand historical documentary, Punk: Attitude to explain how what happened in London during the late 70s wasn't a weird anomaly but instead a regular upswing of the countercultural cycle that's existed for decades. (See review, page 90)
His original edit would've made for a splendid three-hour-plus epic, only Letts ran into some er... techincal difficulties.
"To establish how the idea of punk is bigger than music, I was going to use some examples of non-musical expressions of the punk spirit, like the writing of Albert Camus, the artwork of Marcel Duchamp and the stand-up comedy of Lenny Bruce. I wanted to show some surrealist paintings, but the estate that owns the rights to the images wouldn't allow them to be used. It was very frustrating"
That helps clear up why the final version of Punk: Attitude clocks in at a slim, trim 82 minutes. But it doesn't explain why there are so many talking heads spewing nonsense in place of rare performance footage, and why many of the song clips used in the film are so annoyingly short.
"It all had to do with rights issues," sighs Letts. "I'd go to a television company and request a clip of some obscure band they never knew existed until I asked them for the footage and they'd want $10,000 per minute or part thereof. Can you believe it? I could maybe understand if the money was going to the band members - it's not."
Getting the crucial punk musicians themselves to speak on camera proved no easier. That's why you see spectators such as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and photographer Bob Gruen waxing philosophic instead of real foundational figures like torn-shirt trend-setter Richard Hell or punk poet laureate Patti Smith or the godfathers Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. A problem, perhaps, but it's nothing Letts can't put a positive spin on. Oh, he's good.
"The film was never meant to be an A to Z of every punk band ever. I would've loved to have had them all in there, but Richard was doing a poetry reading in Italy, Patti Smith was on tour, Iggy was doing another film or something and, well, Lou is Lou - let's just leave it at that.
"Because I didn't get some of the big names, it gave me room to feature some of people you don't normally hear from, like James Chance, Glenn Branca and John Sinclair - I love him!"
Having attended numerous screenings of Punk: Attitude when not working on his latest project, a documentary on the making of the Jam's All Mod Cons album, Letts is encouraged by the reaction to the film but has some reservations.
"I don't want people to watch it and go out and start a band. Punk isn't only about music - it's an attitude you can take aboard whatever you do. You can be a punk doctor or a punk teacher - it's up to you.
"The world really doesn't need any more bloody bands right now."