"The Harder They Come" (out now in an epic Blu-ray set from Shout! Factory) holds several distinctions in cinematic history. Not only is the 1972 movie the first feature film made by Jamaicans, it's one of the greatest music films ever and (at the same time) one of the definitive outlaw action pictures of the era.
Perry Henzell was a white Jamaican who ran a company that produced television commercials. The movie idea kicked around for a few years, but the film plan took off when he encountered the young Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff, who had international support and distribution via Island Records, a label owned by fellow white Jamaican Chris Blackwell.
The film's plot, based on the true story of a 1940s Jamaican outlaw named Rhyging, is simple: Country boy Ivanhoe "Ivan" Martin (Cliff) moves to the big city in hopes of getting his big break in the music business. He cuts a great record but refuses to sign a contract that would cost him all future rights to his song. Desperate for cash, he falls in with the local ganja dealers and becomes a nationally famous outlaw after he kills some abusive cops.
As the police hunt for Ivan, his label rushes to release the song, and it becomes a huge hit. As the police close in, Ivan decides to go out in a blaze of glory.
The movie, made on the lowest of low budgets, shines because native Jamaicans were shooting everyday life as they saw it and offering a local perspective that no visiting foreign director could hope to match. The scenes shot inside Dynamic Sounds Studios are some of the best recording studio footage in any movie ever made in any country.
Henzell traveled the USA and presented the movie in college towns as he tried to find an audience. The soundtrack is credited with introducing reggae to American audiences, and the film became a huge hit in Boston, where it played for over a decade until the Orson Welles Cinema burned down and ended its run.
I first saw the movie at the Welles near the end of that era, at a time when the print was faded and scratched and looked nothing like the beautiful presentation you get with this release. Still, few movies have ever made as much of an impression on me, and I know every line and edit in "The Harder They Come" as well as I know any movie I've ever seen.
A crucial moment early in the film comes when Ivan and his new friends go to a Jamaican theater for a screening of Sergio Corbucci's 1966 spaghetti western "Django," starring Franco Nero. The audience hoots and shouts at the screen as the action goes down, and Ivan flashes back to the movie as he initiates his own shootout with the police at the end of "The Harder They Come."
This three-disc release includes hours of bonus features that really break down the challenges faced in making the film and later getting it released. Also included is a disc featuring Henzell's previously "lost" second feature "No Place Like Home."
Filmed in the wake of "The Harder the Come," Henzell's second movie follows a foreign commercial crew as they produce a shampoo ad. A very young P.J. Soles (almost a decade before "Stripes" and "Private Benjamin") plays a version of herself as the model who stars in the commercial. Susan O'Meara (in her only film role) plays the producer who has to track down her missing star and embarks on a relationship with local fixer Carl (Carl Bradshaw, who also shines as Jose in "The Harder They Come").
Aside from Henzell's skill at capturing the culture of his home country, "No Place Like Home" couldn't be more different from "The Harder They Come." It's a '70s-style adult romance that would have established the director as one of the world's emerging talents if it had been released.
Somehow, the original film reels were misplaced for over three decades until a determined producer named David Garonzik fell in love with "The Harder They Come" and decided to help Perry finish his lost movie. Garonzik somehow found the missing film and oversaw restoration of the fading images.
Money was raised, Henzell reassembled his movie and shot some pickup images to round out his vision. He managed to complete a version of the movie before his death in 2006. His wife Sally (a filmmaking partner and a constant presence in the documentaries presented here) now runs Jakes, a hotel on the family's property at Treasure Beach on a less-populated stretch of the island's south coast.
The 21st-century footage was shot on digital and doesn't exactly match the images from the original shoot, but it's easy to overlook the disparity because it's a miracle that we're now able to see this movie.
If you've ever vacationed in Jamaica or spent time listening to reggae music, "The Harder They Come" and now "No Place Like Home" are essential viewing. The comprehensive documentaries included with this release make the entire viewing experience something like a semester-long film school class on Perry Henzell and the birth of Jamaican cinema.
This is a stellar release, made with care and a lot of passion. The story of "The Harder They Come" offers a roadmap and inspiration for anyone who's aiming to tell their story: Get started, show what you know, and figure out the rest as you go along.