Don Letts

Punk rocker, DJ, musician and film-maker Don Letts give us his insight into what makes for a great film score and his role in the BBC’s Sound of Cinema series.

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 19 Sep 2013
  • min read
When it comes to music, Don Letts is a man who has been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and made a few himself over the course of his colourful career.

Since the birth of punk, he’s been an influential figure in both the twin spheres of music and film. Indeed his career has often straddled the two with the each medium taking it in turn to inform the other.

Don first appeared on London’s music scene during the early days of punk. As a DJ, he was seen as a conduit to reggae music finding its way into the ears of punk rockers and was soon taken under the mentorship of the late Sex Pistols manager Malcolm Mclaren before joining Mick Jones in his post-Clash hit makers Big Audio Dynamite.

Outside of music, Don has had his fingers in numerous cinematic pies, including The Clash: Westway to the World and much loved Jamaican smash, Dancehall Queen.

As a BBC 6 Music DJ, he’s already played a part in the BBC Sound of Cinema series, dedicating his two hour show to his favourite soundtracks.

M spoke to him before the show aired to find out more about his career at the crossroads of sound and image…

How did you get involved in the Sound of Cinema series?

I guess I was right for it because of my show on BBC 6 Music and my 30 year career in film making, all of which has revolved around the combination of image and music.

It’s interesting that people are talking about the impact of music on film and vice versa but I guess I’m coming from the third angle - the impact of these on the viewer.

What were your first impressions of sound and image on film?

I distinctly remember seeing [Jamaican crime film] The Harder they Come where I was taken by the ability of the film to use music to not only set up a scene but underscore the story too. It not only entertained but conveyed information and inspired.

It was through the likes of The Harder they Come, Performance and Walkabout that really made me think about how these elements worked together. You’ve got to understand that my generation were already prepped for this because we’d grown up with TV like The Avengers and Doctor Who. All employed music to create a scene and a vibe. We just didn’t really think about it intellectually until much later on.

What do you think makes for a good score?

It has to be something both captivating and ignorable at the same time. A film shouldn’t just rely on a soundtrack. Like Martin Scorsese’s films. He’s great with soundtracks but none of his films rely on the music. They’re enhanced by the music but you know you could take the soundtrack away and replace it with another and it’d be just as good.

How have you chosen your music for your own films?

I can’t answer that question really because to me, it’s an instinctive thing. I’ve never really intellectualised the whys and wherefores. I mean in this Sound of Cinema series there are going to be a lot of documentaries where Neil Brand explains the mechanics of it and the scientific impact of minor and major chords on human beings.

But to me, it’s always been more instinctive. I know that sounds like a cop out but it’s the truth.

What are your favourite scores/favourite composers?

I’ve already mentioned The Harder They Come and Walkabout had a major impact on me. The whole blaxploitation side with the likes of Isaac Hayes, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. Cinema’s sound has made its mark in hip hop in terms of Boyz n The Hood, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It sort of goes all the way back to Performances and Walkabout to the likes of Baz Luhrmann and Quentin Tarantino who I both really like. They use music as soundtracks really well.

The hardest thing for me is that I’m as old as rock n roll. I’m like 58 years old so trying to remember the scenes these particular tracks went with is hard.

Which of your cinematic projects have been most satisfying?

The Harder They Come was a seminal movie for me. I remember seeing that and thinking I’d like to express myself visually. But I couldn’t see a way forward until the punk rock DIY thing happened. I always wanted to make a London version of The Harder They Come – as I love this town. I was born and bred here. Through Chris Blackwell the very first feature film I made was called Dancehall Queen. It was a fictional story set in Jamaica and went on to be Jamaica’s biggest selling movie ever. I’m very proud of it.

I’m a first generation British black and to have that so well received in Jamaica was a big deal. It actually premiered in the same cinema as The Harder they Come was shown. And when I saw three people fighting to sit in one seat, I knew I had a hit on my hands.

What about your other film projects?

I’ve done all the Clash videos. To be honest, the list goes on and on. Most of my documentaries have been about musical figures but I don’t know how relevant they are to these series - other than underlining how everything I do is related to image and music.

Did film play a part in your role with Big Audio Dynamite?

Well a little twist to the tale was how I was a member of the band, but I couldn’t play anything. So one of the most important things for me was flipping the script and taking dialogue from various movies and using it to write lyrics.

E =MC squared was a homage to [director] Nick Roeg. We employed dialogues from Performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don’t look Now, which was a twist.

So it was all about mixing and matching image and music. It’s flipping the script. When I did put dialogue into films, it was because I couldn’t play anything. But using my film knowledge I wrote lyrics with Mick Jones in the same way I’d do a synopsis or treatment for a film.

Ultimately, my whole life has been inspired by this combination of music and film. It still gets me out of bed on a day-to-day basis.

Read our full length feature - Score! Insider tips for writing soundtracks featuring interviews with the likes of Neil Brand, Coldcut and Jon Hopkins.