Film and TV

Perry Henzell's Reggae Revelations on Film

The Jimmy Cliff  recording scene that appears in "The Harder They Come" film is footage of the actual session for the title song.
The Jimmy Cliff recording scene that appears in "The Harder They Come" film is footage of the actual session for the title song. Screen shot/Courtesy of Shout! Factory
It’s a film that many music aficionados may know about, have read about, or heard some of the soundtrack. But with the release of The Harder They Come: The Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory), many will actually see the music-infused 1972 Jamaican crime drama – produced and directed by Perry Henzell — for themselves.

Film/record producer and photographer Arthur Gorson first met Henzell in 1973 in Jamaica while on assignment for a Rolling Stone story about the film and reggae. He took pictures around the island and of some of its music stars, including a young Bob Marley. The Harder They Come had already been out in Jamaica and was about to hit U.S. screens. The pair hit it off and began a lifelong friendship. 

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Shout! Factory DVD cover
“It was a pivotal moment,” Gorson says. As to when he knew the film was really something special, it was the first time he saw it in Jamaica even before he met Henzell. “It blew me away, and the vibe in the theater was something else. It was [regular] Jamaicans seeing themselves on screen for the first time. And that left an indelible impact.”

The Harder They Come follows the story of a young Jamaican named Ivan Martin (reggae star Jimmy Cliff), a country boy who moves to the crowded and bustling city of Kingston to pursue his fortunes. His goal is to make records and become rich and famous, talking his way into recording a song (the title track) and is encouraged by its reception at a local dance hall.

But when slum life realities, a menial job, and the corrupt local preacher, government officials, and music biz sharks dampen those dreams, he takes the opportunity to become a drug dealer to make money. Ivan kills some policemen and becomes a sort of outlaw folk hero, his record now racing up the charts along with his notoriety.

Pumped with ego and self-admiration, he even poses for what amounts to publicity shots to send to the newspapers, brandishing his two pistols in poses while wearing colorful, attention-grabbing clothes.

Throughout the film, Hazell shows an unprecedented and realistic view of the life of native Jamaicans far outside the tourist resorts (many who appear in the film aren’t even actors). The dialogue is often improvised, and he infuses the soundtrack with reggae music including not only what would become some of Cliff’s best known material (“The Harder They Come,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “You Can Get It If You Really Want”), but also tunes from Desmond Dekker and the Toots and the Maytals.

For many Western ears, it was their first exposure to true reggae music, with the film and soundtrack coming out a year before Bob Marley’s worldwide debut with Catch a Fire. “The Harder They Come is still the definitive reggae soundtrack. And most of it was material that was already out there and being heard on sound system and in clubs,” Gorson says. “It was in the air and [Henzell] reached up and grabbed them. That added an immediacy because they were of the moment. What was happening in the studios in Kingston was revolutionary.”

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Jimmy Cliff's yellow hat would make the transition from his character Ivan's civilian life to his later crime-driven existence.
Screen shot/Courtesy of Shout! Factory
To his knowledge, “The Harder They Come” song itself was the only one composed specifically for the movie, from a rough version Jimmy Cliff had brought in. And in the film when Ivan Martin is recording the song in the studio, it’s the actual footage of it being recorded for real at Dynamic Sound.

Gorson visited the now-defunct studio place earlier this year to film some of the extras for the new DVD, and was shocked to see how little had changed – down to the same piano from 45 years ago sitting in the same position.

Disc 1 of The Collector’s Edition includes not only a new 4K scan of the original film, but plenty of extras (also featuring documentaries interviews, commentary, and music videos). And Disc 3 includes even more material about the film, Jamaica, the cast and crew, and the Henzell family.

“I actually think the release today, in 2019, has more of a relevance and impact than 20 or 30 years ago. There’s that rebel spirit of Jimmy Cliff that appeals to young people. And even some of the [fashion] is cool again,” Gorson says. “Ivan creates his own image, he’s determined to be a star and he’s influenced by other media of the time. And there’s gun violence.”

But it’s Disc 2 that provides the most amazing revelation – a fully restored version of No Place Like Home, Henzell’s “lost” follow up movie. Filmed between 1973 and 1981, Henzell tells a broader story of an American TV crew coming to Jamaica to shoot a commercial. An American female producer becomes enchanted with the island (the film’s real star) and one particular local man. They embark on a spiritual and sexual journey – with the occasional burst of cold reality - on the trail of the commercial’s young female star, who has disappeared.

The original, raw footage was lost for 20 years and then thought destroyed in a fire. That’s until Henzell fan/film producer David Garonzik made it a personal mission to not only find it (which he did after much trying), but have it edited with Henzell himself to finally complete the film. As the documentary shows, there was an astonishing degree of technical work done to restore the faded film, a scratchy soundtrack, and hundreds of disjointed film canisters.

“Perry had decided emotionally and financially to put the project aside and get it out of his mind before that happened,” Gorson says. “But I know with this movie, he wanted to reach a broader audience without so much patois and Jamaican characters. As it turns out, the exotic culture of Jamaica was probably more appealing. And there’s a [subplot] about tourism destroying the beauty of the place which certainly resonates today.”

An early cut of No Place Like Home made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006 and was set to finally premiere in Jamaica, but astonishingly, Perry Henzell died the night before the screening at the age of 70. Gorson served as a producer on the project.

Asked about what people should know about Perry Henzell outside of his role as filmmaker, Gorson takes almost no time to answer.

“As a friend, Perry was the most loyal and warmest person you could be with. I’d go to his house up in the hills, and you’d sit at night with kerosene lamps, smoke a spliff, and listen to Rasta friends speculate on whether the shark was more powerful than the porpoise!” Gorson says. “He was brilliant, but he was accessible. And I sorely miss that.”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero