How To Make A Music Documentary

The golden rules of reportage by filmmaker Don Letts
How To Make A Music Documentary - The golden rules of reportage by filmmaker Don Letts
From introducing The Clash to the reggae scene of Brixton to bringing punk to the attention of Bob Marley, iconic music documentarian Don Letts is no stranger to combining the regular with the irregular. His work spans from showcasing the rise of P-funk in Tales Of Dr Funkenstein: George Clinton, to the Grammy Award-winning Clash movie Westway To The World, where Letts breaks past the looking glass of musical genres to discuss who the artists really are. Fluff piece big-ups have never been on the agenda.

Sitting comfortably on a stool at his home in West London, Letts seems relaxed and immediately friendly upon first meeting. But when Clash asks the first question, he rises from his stool and marches around the room, contemplating his answers carefully before dictating his teachings. We are but mere mature students here in his classroom. Today’s subject: the ten golden rules of filmmaking.

1. A GOOD IDEA ATTEMPTED IS BETTER THAN A BAD IDEA PERFECTED.

“It’s something I said back in the days of punk rock. If we look around today there’s a lot of bad ideas very well executed. I actually believe that a good idea will cut through bad execution; I think if the idea is inherently strong it will win out. That doesn’t apply just to film, that applies to fucking everything. I almost like the stuff that’s more rough and ready; I mean the most interesting ideas aren’t even coming from the people that have all the money, equipment or access. All the best ideas are coming from the amateur and the naive. And I’m still naive enough to think that if you have good ideas you’ll do alright. I’m actually living proof of that.”

2. CLARIFY THE IDEA, ITS ESSENCE AND ITS EXECUTION.

“I made a documentary about Sun-Ra, which on the face of it could have just been about the man and his music, that would have been interesting enough. But, I found elements in there that I could relate to beyond the music. For instance, it was about being black and operating outside that box, it was about punk rock and how it predated that ’77 incarnation, because trust me, this brother was as punk rock as it gets. All the jazz purists were going: ‘You can’t do that, that’s not jazz, man’, his reply: ‘Jazz is what I say it is.’ I mean the idea for me wasn’t what it was at face value, it was the deeper ideas that I could relate to, and they were my actual driving force to the point of the music almost being an aside.”

3. UNDERSTAND THAT A MUSIC DOC IS NOT EXEMPT FROM THE FUNDAMENTAL RULES OF ANY GOOD FILM

“People think that if you have a great band and a great soundtrack and maybe some exclusive archive then that’s enough. The fundamental things that create a good music documentary are interesting characters, the social and cultural climate in which the story is set, what the music did beyond selling lots of records and the impact it had on its listeners. Music is important but it’s not supposed to be a crutch, it’s not an excuse for bad filmmaking, or an excuse for meandering montages, visual trifles and it shouldn’t be a music promo. What are you trying to do, get an idea across or help the band sell records? If that be the case, go work for a record company.”

4. GET A PRODUCER THAT KNOWS HIS SHIT, A CREW THAT GETS IT AND AN EDITOR THAT’S IN SYNC WITH YOUR VISION

“Whilst I realize affordable technology’s made it possible for you to do it yourself I enjoy the collaborative process of film-making so personally I work with producer that can take care of business, because it’s an integral part of that process. There are plenty out there that are good at number crunching and the rest, but it also helps if they actually believe in the idea, because they’ll go the extra mile and maybe lose a few percent here or there so you can realise your vision (respect to John Osborne). Crew likewise; it really helps if they ‘get it’. And you’d never believe how many projects have been made by the editor and saved by the editor. None of mine obviously, but they’ve undoubtedly been improved by the editors I’ve worked with! If you’re looking for one: Pablo D’Ambrosi. Although we speak the same language, he’s not afraid to say, ‘Actually Don, that idea’s shit...what about this?’ Occasionally, I’ll agree.”

5. PRE-PRODUCTION DONE PROPERLY WILL SAVE YOUR ASS AND YOUR BUDGET

“Never under estimate the pre-production process, because that’s the cheapest part of the production. Get that shit together everything else will fall in place. But you can’t do it the other way round and it’s expensive the other way round. For example a lot of music documentaries, by definition, include music and in many cases archive. It’s a matter for serious consideration, as I can’t stress enough what a minefield that shit is. It’s stopped many a good idea dead in its track, because archive is ridiculously expensive. We were once charged £10,000 for nine seconds of archive and it weren’t even going to the artist, it was going to a third party that shot it for some TV programme back in the day. There’s a big question here and possibly a future documentary of mine: who owns the fucking culture?”

6. WHILST YOU MIGHT HAVE TO PLEASE THE BAND (IF THEY’RE ALIVE!) DON’T BE AFRAID TO PISS OF THE PURISTS

“If you are dealing with a band that’s alive there is a certain amount of ego stroking you might well have to employ. If nothing else, you need their participation, possibly their footage and probably their music. If they’re dead it’s not such a problem. Whenever you do an interview, intelligent people will realise they’re not confessing to God and they only give you what they want anyway. Some people will drop the mask, but if they don’t want to say it you’re probably not gonna get it. That being the reality you got to box clever, bob, weave and push. There’s no use flogging the same old shit that’s out there. You’ve got to be able to bring something new to the table.”


7. NEVER TREAT THE AUDIENCE LIKE FOOLS. TRY TO OPEN THIER EYES - BE PREPARED TO OPEN YOURS

“Working with Gil Scott-Heron before he died was a trip. I actually managed to piss him off before the whole thing was finished; mind you just getting him to turn up to a meeting pissed him off. That was the most strained situation I’ve ever had, but I knew that going in - and I remember specifically saying to Gil, ‘By the end of this you’re going to fucking hate me.’ To be honest I think he would have hated anyone making him do anything other than what Gil wanted to do, which wasn’t good for him in the first place. At the end of the thing he was shouting at me and I just took it, because sometimes Gil wasn’t Gil. Even saying that, with all his baggage...amazingly lucid and amazingly on the ball, and how he ended up doesn’t really detract from the great body of work that he left behind.”

8. AS THE DIRECTOR THE BUCK STOPS WITH YOU. EXCUSES ARE FOR WIMPS.

“When I went to direct my first video for The Clash (‘London Calling’), I decided to shoot it on a pier on the River Thames. I set the band up on the pier, cameras on the boat, and because I didn’t know about tides and current the camera keeps drifting away from the pier and the boat’s fifteen feet too low because the tide’s out. By the time I’ve sorted out the current and the flow my daytime shoot turns in to a nighttime shoot in the pissing rain. But guess what? It turned out to be a great video because in a weird way I turned my problems into an asset.” What I’m trying to say is that when people watch your film there’s no sub-titles saying ‘we ran out of money’ or ‘we had technical problems’ etc. Whatever ends up on the screen is down to you.

9. DRAW FAST, SHOOT STRAIGHT AND DON’T HIT THE BYSTANDERS

“Something I heard in and old western, a bit of practical advice being given to a young upstart by an old gun-slinger. It’s a pretty good metaphor for filmmaking and life in my books. Time is precious, don’t waste it. Mean what you say, say what you mean. And whilst you might have to be a complete bastard to get what you want at least say thank you afterwards!”

10. FORGET ALL THE ABOVE AND THINK PUNK ROCK

“It’s an attitude; an approach to what you do and we’re not talking mohawks and safety pins here. One of my films, Punk Attitude, I made because I got sick of people writing it off as this weird little cultural thing that happened in the late ’70s. If you really understand punk attitude, you can trace it way back because it predates film; it even predates music. What’s important about understanding that is you get to realise it has a lineage and a continuity. It’s not an isolated moment in time. It’s an ongoing dynamic and if you’re smart enough, brave enough, and you’ve got a good idea, you can be part of it to.


Words by Jamie Carson
Photo by Neil Bedford


The Don Letts-directed Rock N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography Of Richard Young will air on Sky Arts in May, while My Generation: The Story Of British Youth Sub-culture is due on Channel 4 in June. Hear Don’s Culture Clash Radio every week on BBC 6 Music.


Read the full feature the Film issue of Clash magazine, out 5th April. Find out more about the issue HERE.

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