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Blu-Ray Review: Shout Factory’s The Harder They Come (Shout Select)

The fine folks at Shout Factory have given The Harder They Come the lush deluxe treatment it deserves with a new Blu-Ray 3-Disc exhaustive set.  Adam dives into the set that includes a new 4K scan of the original negative, another Film, and hours of bonus material.

The Film(s)  

The Harder They Come    

Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come over 45-years later is still a powerful piece of filmmaking that film, music, and culture is still feeling the repercussions of.  Starring Jimmy Cliff as Ivan an Outlaw Musician that is the prototype for the Modern Day Musical Acts Personas in Film and in real life; part gangsta, part soulful musician, part unwitting political activist… all badass.

Ivan Martin (Cliff) literally fresh off the bus from the Jamaican countryside to see his mother in Kingston is robbed and left with nothing.  His mother is of no help either.  He quickly finds that Kingston is a hard-hard place to live eking a living by the grace of a local Preacher (Basil Keane) where he becomes an all-around Fix-it guy.  This doesn’t hold and Ivan eventually becomes a “rude boy” (eg low-level drug dealer) with the help of Jose (Carl Bradshaw).  Ivan with designs on being a musician works with a crooked producer who eventually makes a record The Harder They Come (hence the title) with him.  But by this time Ivan has gotten in trouble with the law, thanks in large part to Jose ratting him out to the cops (it’s hard out there in that drug dealing game).  With nowhere and no one to turn to Ivan becomes a force of chaos erupting not only Kingston but the entire island with his Folk Hero lore and song that becomes as much his battle cry as a hit sensation.  It is only a matter of time before Ivan is caught by the man or the Drug Kingpin that employed him. 

The Harder They Come moves with lightning speed.  At 109-minutes the film is as lean and economical as some of the best genre films of the 1970s.  That lean docu-drama style that Henzell uses has become almost commonplace in these types of enterprises (City of God, Gammorah, much of Alfonso Caron’s later work, and everything the Safdies’ have done seem highly influenced by Henzell).  The film’s secret weapon is the vitality of discovery that marks everything in the film.  That sense of excitement Henzell and Cliff both have gives the narrative an energized propulsive feeling. 

The film is in love with the limitless possibilities of cinema and myth-making.  There isn’t a scene that feels clichéd or typical of the genre, though we have seen this story multiple times. The moment that Jose takes Ivan to see Django, it never lingers on Ivan, Henzell never trying to force a moment of inspiration.  Rather Henzell focuses on the reactions of everyone in the open-air cinema watching Django and the most iconic moment in that film.  Cliff plays it close to the vest too, allowing Ivan to just be in love with the experience not hinging it on some plot mechanisms that would come later.  It’s these types of found moments that are never edited for plot rather edited for character that is the secret weapon of The Harder They Come.  By creating a milieu rather than a “plot” the film’s freewheeling nature feels cohesive and organic, and never episodic.

The narrative being told feels incidental, as though Henzell came upon Cliff’s Ivan and continued to follow him over months and months.  That incidental nature makes every passing moment feel edgy, nervous as to something could, and usually does, change the narratively drive.  The film moves from being a fish-out-of-water tale to a romance to a musical to an outlaw on the run to a political critique so quickly and so organically that doesn’t feel like fiction.  Everything moves with a sense of verisimilitude that is rare in narrative filmmaking.  It’s part of the many reasons why The Harder They Come is still as fresh, and badass as it was the day it was released. 

No Place Like Home

The long-forgotten follow up to Henzell’s debut is as a complete turn in story that one could get.  A meditation on Jamaica as seen through the eyes of a Commercial Producer that falls in love with one of the Local Men.  No Place Like Home through its beauty and style creates a tale similar to Kong War Wai’s beautiful and equally ponderous In The Mood For Love.

Susan (Susan O’Meara) is in Jamaica filming a commercial for a new Shampoo.  Armed with a crew and a model (PJ Soles in a very early role) Susan is trying to complete an already trouble-filled shoot when her model leaves sight unseen.  With the help of Carl (Carl Bradshaw) a Local Man brought on as a kind of Unit Production Manager attempts to help Susan find her model.  As they move from town to town it becomes clear that the model has left.  Clearer still is Susan and Carl are attracted to one another.

No Place Like Home shares its amorphous narrative docu-drama style with The Harder They Come.  The hodgepodge of genres it flows through from travelogue to romance to a political polemic is very different than those of Henzell’s first feature.  Henzell’s second feature is focused on Jamaica as a culture as much as it is with its characters.  The story is an afterthought, unlike The Harder They Come, which is more genre-centric thus being more story-driven. 

Many will find this ponderous story frustrating as Henzell makes no definitive narrative choices rather let everything ebb and flow.  By its end, the film feels like a dream or a fleeting memory of an incident almost forgotten like a poem about a place, romance, and sex from a youthful reckless time. 

The Transfer

In a word revelatory. The Harder They Come has had many fine transfers (See the DVD Criterion version) but Shout Factory’s 4K master from the original film negatives is nothing short of a miracle. Similar to the 4K restoration done for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It retains all of the beautiful 16mm grain but with a sharpness and clarity not seen before without any DNR to bring this out. I can only imagine the time and detailed efforts it took to bring this transfer to life in a way that even opening night audiences in Kingston probably never saw.

When watching the special features on No Place Like Home you gain an appreciation for all of the tireless work done by this crew to restore this film. It is beautiful but not in the traditional sense. If one is expecting it to be perfect ala a modern-day transfer, one will be disappointed. If one looks at the image as a sort of the beauty of what aged film looks like, it’s amazing.

The Extras

They include the following:

DISC 1: THE HARDER THEY COME

  • Audio Commentary With Author David Katz
  • “One And All: The Phenomenon Of The Harder They Come”
  • “Hard Road To Travel: The Making Of The Harder They Come”
  • Vintage Interviews With Actor Jimmy Cliff, Producer Arthur Gorson And Director Perry Henzell
  • Interview With Director Of Photography David MacDonald
  • Interview With Line Producer Yvonne Brewster
  • “The Harder They Come” Music Video
  • Still Gallery

The audio commentary by David Katz the critic and author’s track is a very dry, scholarly track. Though do not count this one out as there is an amazing amount of detail about the history of Jamaica, the life and times of Perry Henzell, the life and times of Jimmy Cliff, the making of the film itself, the cultural impact, and so much more. Katz’s track will be a must listen to anyone who loves The Harder They Come.

One and All: The Phenomenon of The Harder They Come is a 10-minute featurette on the release and cultural impact of the first feature-length Jamaican Film. The featurette discusses how the film helped introduce Reggae to the world. People like John Densmore (of The Doors), Perry Henzell, Jimmy Cliff, and Producer Arthur Gorson give comments to the legitimacy of the film’s place in renegade political films.

Hard Road to Travel: The Making of The Harder They Come is a 52-minute featurette. The archival making-of does a great job of giving not only the making of the film but the cultural impact not only in Jamaica and the Caribbean but the world writ large.

The Vintage Interviews With Actor Jimmy Cliff, Producer Arthur Gorson And Director Perry Henzell amount to about 28-minutes of interview footage.  Of course the most interesting is Cliff which was recorded in 1986 where he discusses his musical influences, religion, and other topics.  Producer Gorson primarily discusses meeting Perry Henzell during his interview.   Henzell during his interview discusses the “sequel” (that never happened) to The Harder They Come, also about No Place Like Home.  Much of the Henzell interview has been used in other areas. 

The Interview With Director Of Photography David MacDonald is a vintage 40-minute look at how he was hired, as a recommendation from Ridley Scott (which Scott later confirms within his interview), to the wildness of the production and just how hard it was to film The Harder They Come.  It’s a very thorough interview and MacDonald is quite honest about his experience with Henzell and for those interested in more technical aspects of what a Cinematographer/Director of Photography, MacDonald deep dives into Super 16 which was the format they shot The Harder They Come.

Interview With Line Producer Yvonne Brewster is a 31-minute vintage interview look at the production of The Harder They Come. Brewster much like MacDonald is very honest about how tough the production was.  Specifically, Brewster has some great anecdotes about Jimmy Cliff and working with someone who wasn’t a traditional actor.  

Rounding out this disc’s extras is a Music Video for Jimmy Cliff song The Harder They Come and a Photo Gallery.  The video runs about 3.5-minutes and features clips of the film.  The Photo Gallery runs automatically for about 7-minutes, can be paused but not navigated through.  The Gallery should be looked at as the photos displayed are less professional and more “captured moments” and more artful than your normal gallery. 

DISC 2: NO PLACE LIKE HOME

  • Audio Commentary With Sally Henzell, David Garonzik, Cookie Kinkaed, And Arthur Gorson
  • “Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey”
  • “Rise Up From The Cutting Room Floor” – The Restoration Of No Place Like Home
  • Audio Bonus Feature – P.J. Soles Original Vocal Track And Original Acoustic Guitar Demo By Steven Soles For The Song “World Full Of Beauty”
  • Theatrical Trailer

The commentary by Sally Henzell, David Garonzik, Cookie Kinkaed, and Authur Gorson is a fascinating personal and technical commentary. Sally, the wife of Perry Henzell and Art Director, gives us play by play of the production itself. Garonzik details a lot of the restoration and editing/assembling the film in 2006 and also acts like a moderator prompting the group with questions and anecdotes. It’s an amazing joyous happy commentary celebrating the fascinating work done by all and of the life and times of Perry Henzell and this very odd but artfully wonderful film. Though the commentary is a bit sparse with sections of silence by the participants though when this happens the volume of the film is raised.

Perry Henzell: A Filmmakers odyssey is a 25-minute making-of documentary on No Place Like Home.

Rise Up from the Cutting Room Floor: Restoring No Place Like Home is a 5-minute featurette covering the process of restoring the film from video assembly cut to workprint and the painstaking process to bring the film back to life. The above YouTube Clip (provided by Shout Factory) illustrates the restoration beautifully.

PJ Soles Original Vocal Track for World Full of Beauty is 2.5-minutes of the raw audio track for Soles version of the song that plays multiple times in the film. It’s played over photos.

Steven Soles Original Guitar and Vocal Track for World Full of Beauty is a 3.5-minute audio track of PJ’s husband and musician doing a demo version of the song. Also played over photos.

The 3-minute trailer for the film rounds out the disc. 

DISC 3: BONUS DISC – The Legacy Of Perry Henzell: A Story Of Jamaican Cinema

  • “Filmin’ In The Gully” – Anatomy Of Three Scenes – With Cinematographer Franklyn “Chappy” St. Juste
  • “Duppies In The Control Room” – Dynamic Sounds Studios Then And Now
  • “10A – Jamaica’s Film Yard” – The Story Of Perry Henzell’s Kingston Home And Production Center
  • A Conversation With Sir Ridley Scott
  • “Out Of Many: One Filmmaker” – The Disciples Of Perry Henzell”
  • “Everyone A Star: The Original Cast”
  •  “Big Heap Of Help: The Original Supporting Team”
  •  “Roots: The Family Henzell”
  •  “How Perry Rocked The World”
  •  “Live From The Reggae Awards”

Filmin’ in the Gully: Anatomy of Three Scenes is a new 13-minute interview with Cinematographer Franklyn St. Juste. St. Juste starts with a great story about Henzell and filming with the wrong type of 16mm film. St. Juste is extremely honest in his assessment of Henzell’s skills as a director. The interview is intercut with specific footage from the film he is discussing issues during the filming (like a chase scene with only one gun for multiple characters).

Duppies in the Control Room: Dynamic Sounds Studios Then and Now is a new 11-minute featurette that discusses the now famous studio. The featurette begins with an audio clip from Keith Richards (yes, that Richards) discussing his living in Jamaica for 6-months. They use a combination of footage shot today and the film as a reference to how much the studio has and hasn’t changed.

10A: The Jamaican Film Yard is a new 14-minute featurette about Perry Henzell’s Home and what became the production office/space. As much as a tour of the home/art space as it was a history of Henzell’s production company that handled not only his film and commercials but many other film productions. It’s a very welcoming featurette that discusses some great stories and recollections. Comments by Susan Henzell, Jason Henzell, Storm Saulter, Paul Noble, Beverly Henley, and Justine Henzell all comment on the matter.

A Conversation with Sir Ridley Scott is a new 25-minute interview with the legendary director. Scott discusses how he came to meet Perry Henzell and gotten involved with their production company as a freelance art director and eventually coming to direct commercials. Some great tidbits include that Scott almost doing Camera Operating on The Harder They Come, his work on Commercials, lying about Underwater Camera Work, His Relationship with Henzell, and a great Pauline Kael story that relates to Henzell and criticisms (he briefly mentions a Bladerunner TV series they’re making).

Out of Many One Filmmaker is a new 60-minute featurette discussing the legacy of Perry Henzell beyond his film but his inspiring of a generation of filmmakers. The stories and interviews discuss how filmmakers were given chances, guidance, and inspiration by Perry Henzell. The featurette is very entertaining, hilarious, and not the heavy-duty “homework” that one would think. Chris Browne, Storm Saulter, Gerald “Rass Kassa” Hynes, and Maxine Walters all show up and contribute to the discussion about Hanzell and his influence.

Everyone a Star: The Original Cast is a new 49-minute featurette with actors that have worked with Henzell. Both casts of The Harder They Come and No Place Like Home discuss not only working with Henzell but their history with not only the director but their lives, and the productions. PJ Soles, Carl Bradshaw, Winston Stona all show up to contribute to the discussion about Hanzell and his influence on their careers and Jamaican cinema as a whole.

Whole Heap of Help is a new 48-minute featurette with the Behind-the-Scenes men and women who helped Henzell get his various projects made. Setup in a similar manner as the Everyone a Star featurette with specific crew members discussing not only Henzell but their lives also. Some of these stories are great like the reason why Jimmy Cliff got cast over Bob Marley (who was up for the role of Ivan). Beverly Manley, Robert Russell, Cookie Knikead show up to contribute to the discussion about Hanzell and his influence on their careers and Jamaican cinema.

Roots: The Family Henzell is a new 46-minute featurette that explores Perry Henzell’s life through his family members. As much about Henzell’s life, they do speak to their own lives and living in Jamaica. It is as much about the milieu around Henzell and the family dynamics as it is about his filmmaking and how involved with his work. From pet monkeys to being junior tennis stars to growing up with a filmmaker to their relationship with him to Countryman and what he was like to what they remember the shooting of both The Harder They Come and No Place Like Home. Sally Henzell (his wife), Justine Henzell (his daughter), Jason Henzell (his son) show up to contribute to the discussion about Hanzell and the past and the future of Henzell’s work (there are a few projects Justine appears to be producing that are unrealized).

How Perry Henzell Rocked the World is a new 59-minute featurette which discusses Jamaican Music, Reggae, and how Henzell’s film fits into the history and influence to not just the music scene but politics as is the case with Reggae music. This is by far the most interesting in this set of interviews because of how deep they go into the music and the creation and history of Reggae, Ska, and the other forms of Jamaican music. Steven Soles, “Native” Wayne Jobson, and Chris Salewicz show up to contribute to the discussion which is less about Henzell and more about the culture surrounding the musical scene in Jamaica.  

Live from the Reggae Awards is a new 12-minute is a featurette with Native Wayne acting as an interviewer during the awards to discuss the influence that The Harder They Come had on artists and Reggae Music.

Don’t forget to watch the Credits. They have some extra interview footage. Not to be missed.

The Final Thought

Simply put, The Harder They Come is one of the best catalog releases of 2019. Shout Factory has gone above and beyond creating an exhaustive set for a seminal film. HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATIONS!!!

Shout Factory’s Blu-Ray Edition of The Harder They Come is out August 20th

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