Release Date(s)1972 (August 20, 2019)
Studio(s)International Films/Xenon Pictures/New World Pictures (Shout! Factory/Shout Select)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
The Harder They Come was a true game changer when it materialized in 1972. It showed the world a different side of Jamaican life, as well as a realistic portrayal of the people who lived there, in a way that was unprecedented. Its director, Perry Henzell, went to enormous lengths, both personally and financially, to not just get the film made, but to get it in front of audiences all over the world. It became a staple of the Midnight Movie scene later on in its life, but it’s looked at today as an inventive and respected piece of independent filmmaking with very few equals.
After the death of his grandmother, Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) comes into town with a dream of developing a singing career and creating a better life for himself. Facing adversity at almost every turn, he eventually gets the chance to cut a record, but descends thereafter, becoming an aggressive, drug dealing cop killer. Meanwhile, his song, The Harder They Come, turns out to be an unexpected hit, inadvertently making him an antihero to listeners, but surviving to enjoy the success or any of the excesses that come along with it is all but uncertain.
The stark realism, with an almost documentary-like feel, is part of what makes The Harder They Come so effective. Although there’s a plot thread with a distinct pace, as well as palpable stylistic choices (including an effective use of footage from Django starring Franco Nero), it’s mostly a snapshot of an era. It’s not unlike the genre films made in New York during the early 1980s, such as Basket Case, Maniac, and Vice Squad. The performances are also key. Despite many of the principals being either inexperienced or not actors at all, their nuances are director Perry Henzell’s chief focus, leaving the look of the film to his cinematographers.
Even Hilton, the record producer who gives a mere $20 to a reluctant Ivan for his song, shows a degree of shade. He’s initially presented as a cold and indifferent character to those around him, yet when the heat’s on and the local law enforcement is attempting to keep both food and ganja out of the area to force locals into coming forward about Ivan’s whereabouts, he expresses a down-to-earth understanding that it can only hurt the people, as well as the cause, in the long run. It’s one of the film’s strongest aspects – none of the characters are black and white, Ivan especially. We feel his plight and go through it with him so that when he resorts to wrongdoing, we’re on his side regardless. The same goes for the other characters, including Ivan’s friend with a sick child who might only get better if he turns Ivan in. It’s refreshing to have these complicated character dynamics, particularly in a film that was originally released in the U.S. as nothing more than just another blaxploitation film, which even the artwork promoting it was more than guilty of.
The Harder They Come is also chiefly responsible for bringing reggae music to the world. A best-selling soundtrack for decades, it exposed audiences of many colors to a form of music that was much different than what was thought of as Jamaican music at the time, which tended to lean more towards calypso. Today, the film as a whole stands as a well-regarded piece of cinema, one that was particularly groundbreaking for black audiences who felt that they had genuine representation on the screen. While the film is a simple story about the (almost) rise of a star and his eventual fall from grace, it’s far more absorbing than many films like it thereafter.
Shout Select brings The Harder They Come to Blu-ray for the first time in the U.S. in a 3-Disc Collector’s Edition. Even though the film was restored in the mid-2000s, Shout has gone to the trouble of creating a new 4K scan from the original 16mm camera negative. While the film has, and continues to have, a rough appearance, it’s a solid presentation through and through. Grain levels are thick though natural, and the frame is stable throughout. Leftover damage is more pronounced during the beginning and ending of the film as streaks of wear permeate the frame, but the rest of the presentation mostly consists of speckling and occasional discoloration. Hues are potent elsewhere, including the lush greens seen in the island’s foliage, as well as a memorable scene on a golf course late in the film. Black levels are deep, though not always solid as grain can sometimes lighten them up. It’s an organic presentation of a film that, with the newfound clarity, enhances its documentary-like aesthetic.
Audio tracks are included in English 2.0 mono and 5.1 DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. The mono track certainly reflects the film’s low budget nature, which is full of overlapping sound activity, and even obvious uses of overdubbing (again, something that augments the film’s artistic merit). Dialogue is mostly clear while sound effects are merely adequate. The main focus is the film’s music selection, which is given an ample amount of heft. The 5.1 track widens the music out, even beefing it up with a bump in the lower registers, but it isn’t all that impressive for a surround track. Dialogue is relegated to the front and center while atmospheric and panning activity is never made use of. It’s basically a slightly heavier version of the original mono, which for some, might be more ideal (your mileage may vary). Regardless, both tracks carry their fair share of hiss, but other instances of age-related wear and tear are minimal.
This release also contains a number of extensive bonus materials. Disc One, which contains the film itself, features a new audio commentary by author David Katz who provides a straight-laced, fact-based background on the film and those who made it (though goes quiet far too often); One and All: The Phenomenon of The Harder They Come, a 10-minute featurette containing interviews with reggae music historian Roger Steffans, The Doors drummer John Densmore, director Perry Henzell, actor and musician Jimmy Cliff, film producer Arthur Gorson, and music journalist John Sutton-Smith; Hard Road to Travel: The Story of The Harder They Come, a 52-minute making-of featuring interviews with Perry Henzell, actress and production assistant Beverley Manley, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, co-writer Trevor Rhone, lawyer and financier Pat Rousseau, financier Frank Pringle, director Dicky Jobson, first assistant director Robert Russell, actors Carl Bradshaw and Winston Stona, cinematographer Franklyn St. Juste, booking agent Lincoln Forbes, art director Sally Henzell, and publicist Barbara Blake-Hannah; a rare 10-minute interview with Jimmy Cliff, conducted by Roger Steffans in 1986; an 8-minute interview with producer Arthur Gorson; an 11-minute conversation between Perry Henzell and Arthur Gorson from 2002 (with only Henzell appearing on camera); a 40-minute interview with cinematographer David MacDonald; a 32-minute interview with associate producer Yvonne Brewster; a music video for The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff; and an animated still gallery featuring a set of 89 behind-the-scenes images and personal photos.
Disc Two features Perry Henzell’s mostly-unseen follow-up No Place Like Home, which is presented here utilizing a new restoration from the original 16mm camera negative, also with audio in English 2.0 mono and 5.1 DTS-HD, and optional subtitles in English SDH. It’s an interesting film and beautifully-shot, but is understandably not up to par with its predecessor (though the story of its journey to completion is compelling). In addition, there’s a new audio commentary with restoration producer David Garonzik, art director Sally Henzell, still photographer Cookie Kinkaed, and executive producer Arthur Gorson; Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey, a new 25-minute documentary on the making of the film (which is an absorbing glimpse into why Henzell never made another film); Rise-Up from the Cutting Room Floor, a new 5-minute featurette focusing on examples of the film’s restoration with commentary by David Garonzik; P.J. Soles’ original 2-minute vocal track and Steve Soles’ original 3 1/2-minute guitar and vocal track for the song World Full of Beauty, presented separately; and the film’s theatrical restoration trailer.
Disc Three, which is christened The Legacy of Perry Henzell: A Story of Jamaican Cinema, features a bevy of newly-produced bonus material that acts a semi-documentary. Included is Filmin’ in the Gully: Anatomy of Three Scenes, a 13-minute interview with cinematographer Franklyn St. Juste; Duppies in the Control Room: Dynamic Sounds Studios Then and Now, a 12-minute audio interview with musician Keith Richards about his memories of recording in Jamaica, as well as a tour of the now defunct studio by Arthur Gorson and studio manager Errol Gayle; 10A: The Jamaican Film Yard, a 14-minute featurette about Perry Henzell’s Kingston home and production center, featuring interviews with film producer Maxine Walters, Jason Henzell, Sally Henzell, directors Storm Saulter, Chris Browne, Gerald “Rass Kassa” Hynes, commercial director Paul Noble, Perry Henzell’s personal assistant Beverly Manley, and Justine Henzell; A Conversation with Sir Ridley Scott, a 25-minute interview with the director about his memories of shooting commercials in Jamaica and his relationship with Perry and Sally Henzell (and coming close to actually working on The Harder They Come); Out of Many: One Filmmaker, a 61-minute set of interviews with Perry Henzell devotees Chris Browne, Storm Saulter, Gerald “Rass Kassa” Hynes, and Maxine Walters; Everyone a Star: The Original Cast, a 49-minute set of interviews with actors P.J. Soles, Carl Bradshaw, and Winston Stona; Whole Heap of Help, a 48-minute set of interviews with Beverly Manley, first assistant director Robert Russell, and still photographer Cookie Kinkaed; Roots: The Family Henzell, a 46-minute set of interviews with Sally Henzell, Justine Henzell, and Jason Henzell; How Perry Henzell Rocked the World, a 60-minute set of interviews with composer Steven Soles, musician and personality “Native” Wayne Jobson, and music historian Chris Salewicz; Live from the Reggae Awards, a 12-minute set of interviews with various artists and industry people, conducted by “Native” Wayne Jobson on the red carpet at the Jaria Awards (a music awards show in Kingston); and a 2-minute set of documentary credits, which incorporates brief interviews with the documentary’s producers. Unfortunately, not carried over from the Criterion DVD release is an audio commentary for The Harder They Come by director Perry Henzell and actor Jimmy Cliff and an interview with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. So if you own that release, you may want to hang onto it.
Shout Select delivers a dynamite package with The Harder They Come. It’s a massive release that’s likely their best to date, combining great transfers with a wealth of educational and informative bonus material that’s akin to the old adage “film school in a box.” It’s also touching to see Perry Henzell’s follow-up No Place Like Home get such deluxe treatment, which was completed not long before his death. For film fans, this is an essential purchase. Highly recommended!
– Tim Salmons