The Harder They Come Blu-ray Review
Shout Factory (Shout Select)
Blu-ray Release: August 20, 2019
The Harder They Come Video: 1.66:1/1080p/Color
The Harder They Come Video Audio: English/Jamaican Patois DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 & 2.0 mono
No Place Like Home Video: 1.85:1/1080p/Color
No Place Like Home Audio: English/Jamaican Patois DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono
Subtitles: English SDH, forced English for Patois scenes (No Place Like Home only)
Run Time: 109 minutes (The Harder They Come)/90 minutes (No Place Like Home)
Director: Perry Henzell
Ivan Martin (Jimmy Cliff) is an aspiring singer hoping to make a name for himself. Robbed of his money and possessions, he finds work with a self-righteous preacher and an unscrupulous music mogul who exploits young hopefuls. In desperation, the simple country boy turns outlaw, at war with both the police and his rivals. Ivan's dream of stardom soon becomes a reality as he rises to the top of both the pop charts ...and the most-wanted lists. (From Shout’s official synopsis)
It may seem obvious to connect crime and the music industry these days, but it wasn’t yet movie fodder when Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come released in 1972. Despite associations between the mob and jazz musicians dating back to the speakeasies of the Prohibition era, the late ‘80s/early ‘90s rise of so-called gangsta rap was really a turning point when it came to blurring the lines, at least in popular culture. Major exceptions include Frank Sinatra and other Rat-Packers playing criminals/gangsters in movies and a subplot in The Godfather (which was written in 1969, but not released as a movie until 1972). Real-life industry moguls fashioned themselves after film gangsters, elevating them to legendary status in the eyes of fans. As a biopic of real-life Jamaican criminal/folk hero/Rude Boy Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin, The Harder They Come was mostly fiction, but Henzell & Trevor D. Rhone’s screenplay was based on very real, cutthroat world of the Jamaican recording industry. It’s closest relatives are early “rise & fall” crime dramas, like Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), but the splash of the musical biopic made it unique. In fact, it was ahead of its time, even without the crime angle, because the musical biopic genre didn’t become popular until well into the late ‘70s (even early prestige, Oscar-bait example, Sidney J. Furie’s Lady Sings the Blues, was released the same year as The Harder They Come).
It wasn’t surprising that The Harder They Come was a smash hit in Jamaica, considering that, as the first home-grown Jamaican film production (other movies had shot in the country, but were forign productions), it was the first time local audiences would’ve seen themselves represented on-screen in a modern context. However, its success outside of the country was less predictable. Stateside, Roger Corman’s New World tried and failed to sell The Harder They Come as a Third World blaxploitation picture. Later, it found popularity among countercultural youth on the newly-minted midnight movie circuit, where it helped define the modern concept of the cult film, alongside George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). Its anti-establishment themes spoke to underground enthusiasts and helped introduce white audiences to the melodic joys and politics of reggae and ska music. As such, Henzell, Cliff, and the soundtrack’s other artists deserve credit for international popularity of Bob Marley’s music in the mid-’70s and inception of the similarly socially conscious second wave of ska that hit the UK in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s.
From the standpoint of its own influences, The Harder They Come is a layer cake. Obviously, American crime movies, Rhyging’s life, and Cliff’s experiences with recording industry kingpins were key components, but there are others; namely the slightly obscure fact that Ivan and his friends model some of their behavior after Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966), which they see at the beginning of the movie. Django was one of the so-called spaghetti westerns, made by Italian directors who were influenced by classic Hollywood westerns and modern politics (they were very popular in Jamaica). In turn, the Hollywood westerns were based on myths from the real American west. In turn, The Harder They Come’s cult success very nearly coincided with the so-called “original midnight movie,” Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970) and continuing college market popularity of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969 – a movie The Harder They Come resembles in terms of its loose structure, raw look, and focus on music), which are both completely different takes on Hollywood western mythology from a completely different part of the world (Mexico, by way of Chile, and America, respectively).
This Blu-ray set also includes Henzell’s follow-up and final film, No Place Like Home. It was assumed lost for decades and left unfinished. The raw footage (in mostly printed form) was discovered, cleaned up, and re-edited with Henzell’s input. Extra footage was shot to fill the holes and a rough cut premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. Henzell passed away shortly after and a final cut was made using his notes. The mere existence of a “redux” version (as it is referred to on imdb.com) is so exciting that it’s difficult to parse the film in a normal critical sense, so here are some quick thoughts.
Henzell continued working with a loose narrative structure (few scenes were scripted) for this docu-drama-like analysis of the differences between real Jamaican life and the experiences of an American film crew shooting a shampoo commercial. Most of the plot centers around Susan (Susan O'Meara), a film producer from New York, who befriends Jamaican production assistant/driver, Carl (The Harder They Come featured player Carl Bradshaw), while the two look for wayward actress/model/singer P.J. (P.J. Soles, in her film debut), who has run away from the set into the heart of the country. No Place Like Home makes good use of its film-within-a-film techniques (or, I suppose, commercial-within-a-film) during its first act, then grows into a travelogue of the island nation, as Susan listens to the natives tell their personal stories and takes photos of the many locations, while Carl continues working the white tourists for spare cash. This mockumentary part of the story (O’Meara and her stand-ins, who were all members of Henzell’s family, are genuinely interviewing real people) adds authentic flavor to a surprisingly cliché-driven white-lady-midlife-crisis-in-a-foreign-land romance that feels pretty disconnected from the film’s serious and angry exploration of the country’s then-current political climate. It’s sort of like if Eat Pray Love had a social conscience and was cut together with an arthouse documentary about 1973 Jamaica, but, you know, good. Keep your eyes peeled for pre-fame Grace Jones in a cameo as one of Carl’s friends.
The Harder They Come has bounced around from home video company to home video company over the decades. For a long time, Criterion’s Laserdisc and subsequent DVD were the only digital releases available in North America. Xenon Pictures acquired the rights and released restored editions in 2003, 2006, and 2010; each time with basically the same extras. The problem was that none of these discs, nor any DVDs available from other countries, were anamorphically enhanced (some were misframed, from 1.66:1 to 1.85:1, and, frankly, they all looked pretty rough). Odeon Entertainment released the first Blu-ray in the UK in 2015 (Another World Entertainment released a Norwegian BD that I’m told uses the same transfer). I do not have access to this release, but there are reviews available online, such as this one from DVDBeaver.com, that include full-sized screen-caps, so I have a decent idea as to its quality. Generally, it appears decent, but also flat, colorless, and faded (apparently, the fading gets worse as the movie goes on). It’s also misframed at 1.78:1. Quality issues on each of these releases comes down to the materials each company had available, as well as the fact that the film itself was shot cinéma vérité style, out in the elements, on Super 16mm film.
Shout Factory’s new Select line Blu-ray comes furnished with a brand new transfer, mastered from a 4K scan of the original 16mm negative. The rescan makes a huge difference and, while the 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is hampered by the materials, this is the first archival quality version of the film. There are a few instances of print damage, some hairs in the gate, flecks of white, chromatic aberration, and/or strobing colors, but the condition is otherwise fantastic – shockingly so. Most artifacts are the result of the 16mm source (Super 16 apparently lends itself to better detail than standard 16mm), its increased grain size and lack of 35mm level detail. The colors also exhibit that softer, semi-pastel quality often seen from vérité 16mm movies. Pinks, blues, reds, and greens are plush and skin tones appear natural. Blacks are impressive when the shot is well lit, but they struggle during the darkest night time sequences, because the levels are so flat that the filmmakers have to lighten everything until it appears washed-out. Again, not really the transfer’s problem.
Disc specs claim that No Place Like Home was also restored from original 16mm film elements, but the process was a little more complex than that. Most of the footage discovered was workprint with a smattering of unprocessed negative. Also, just to be pedantic, the commercial scenes were shot on 35mm for extra contrast with the rest of the movie’s Super 16 imagery and, of course, there was some new footage shot in 2006. At its best, the 1080p, 1.78:1 image is vibrant, highly detailed, and relatively clean, but, on average, it struggles with inconsistency. The average shot is scorched by bright Jamaican sun, leading some rougher condition footage to bloom and overcook the colors. Major print damage is rare, because it was removed by hand, but every shot exhibits some kind of artifact, be it scratches, tracking lines, or, in rarer cases, video-based ghosting effects. However, considering everything that went into rescuing the movie from limbo, the only video issue I can realistically complain about is the occasional appearance of what looks like artificial grain applied to the sequences that were either taken from video tape sources, or in such bad condition that heavy DNR was required. Personally, I wish that the damaged print footage would’ve been presented as-is, but understand why they decided to smooth it out.
Shout Factory has included two uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks – the original mono and a 5.1 remix, which was probably borrowed from Xenon. The 5.1 offers a slightly cleaner musical experience, because it spreads the songs into stereo (as many were recorded and produced), but also has awkward rear-channel echo, sloppy stereo/surround effects spreads, and is a tad more compressed than the mono track. As in the case of the video quality, the audio is limited by the quality of the tracks, more than their condition, which seems to be fine (lip-sync errors are also inheret in the tracks). There are plenty of volume inconsistencies and clarity dips, but these coincide with previous releases and are almost definitely the result of recording/mixing issues. Of course, dialogue and effects are, in this case, secondary to the music. The reggae and ska soundtrack switches between diegetic and nondiegetic sources and the sound quality follows suit. The nondiegetic stuff sounds very close to the CD masters, minus the stereo upgrade and some of the clarity afforded to digital remastered sources. The diegetic stuff fits the film’s aural world – sometimes it is too bright or distorts at high volume, but always in a way that supports the experience. Note that this release does not include the forced subtitles that previous tapes and discs used during particularly challenging Patois sequences. It might be worth watching the film with subtitles on, especially if this is your first time seeing the movie.
No Place Like Home is also fitted with DTS-HD Master Audio mono and 5.1 mixes. In this case, the people that put together the final edit were also the ones mixing the final audio, so the 5.1 doesn’t sound as inauthentic. However, there are also a lot of sound effects that were clearly added during the restoration and sound like they were taken from an off-the-shelf effects CD, so it’s still a bit awkward. Again, I got better results from the mono track, overall, especially the super-clean music tracks, which I assume were added to the footage for the first time as the restoration was completed. Other issues, namely erratic sound quality, is entirely the result of the mix & match manner in which the final cut was put together. This film does include forced subtitles for Patois scenes and a couple of other sequences that are too muffled to understand.
Disc 1: The Harder They Come
Commentary with author David Katz – We begin with a brand new commentary with the author of Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography (Interlink Pub Group Inc, 2011). Katz engages in very little (if any?) screen-specific commentating, opting to treat the track as a catchall audio dissertation on Cliff’s career. The information is valuable, but there are long stretches with no commentary and no discussion of the film techniques or really any mention of the rest of the cast & crew, making me think that Katz’ efforts may have been better served with a video essay. Those folks that still have their way out-of-print Criterion DVD will want to hang onto it for its exclusive Henzell and Cliff commentary.
Xenon DVD & Odeon Blu-ray catalogue extras:
One and All: The Phenomenon of The Harder They Come (10:09, SD) – Henzell and various historians, filmmakers, and musicians discuss the film’s cultural significance.
Hard Road to Travel: The Making of The Harder They Come (52:02, SD) – In director Chris Browne’s retrospective documentary, Henzell, co-writer Trevor Rhone, and other cast & crew members recall the making of the film, from pre-production, through cult success.
Interview with Jimmy Cliff (9:40, SD)
Interview with movie & record producer Arthur Gorson (7:26, SD)
Interview with Perry Henzell (10:54, SD)
Interview with a director of photography David MacDonald (39:27, HD)
Interview with line producer Yvonne Brewster (31:21, HD)
“The Harder They Come” music video (3:32, SD)
Disc 2: No Place Like Home (all new content)
Commentary with Henzell’s wife/art director Sally Henzell, stills photographer Cookie Kinkead, producer/restoration supervisor David Garonzik, and executive producer Arthur Gorson – Garonzik kind of takes the lead here as the restoration supervisor and default historian of the film’s epic production life. Henzell has the broadest knowledge concerning the shooting processes, so she’s secondary lead, while Kinkead and Gorson support the discussion with a wealth of behind-the-scenes factoids.
Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey (25:00, HD) – A short film by Gorson & Garonzik concerning the long process of completing No Place Like Home, giving us insight into Henzell’s goals for the film, casting, shooting start & stop for seven years, financial problems, the supposed destruction of the negative materials, Garonzik’s efforts to find the original footage, putting together the rough cut, the TIFF premiere, and Henzell’s passing.
Rise Up from the Cutting Room Floor ( 4:56, HD) – A featurette about the film’s restoration with Garonzik, including footage from Sally Henzell’s rough cut ¾ tape and unprocessed film clips for comparison.
PJ Soles’ original “World Full of Beauty” vocal tracks (1:56, audio only)
Steven Soles’ (PJ’s ex) original “World Full of Beauty” guitar/vocal demo (3:29, audio only)
Disc 3: The Legacy of Perry Henzell: A Story of Jamaican Cinema (all new material, produced and directed by Arthur Gorson and David Garonzik with executive production from Henzell’s daughter, Justine)
Filmin’ in the Gully: Anatomy of Three Scenes (13:27, HD) – The Harder They Come cinematographer Franklyn “Chappy” St. Juste talks about photographing and even directing some of reshoot footage.
Duppies in the Control Room: Dynamic Sounds Studios Then and Now (11:19, HD) – A look back at the recording studio featured in the film and the early state of reggae’s international break-out, hosted by Gorson and studio manager Errol Gayle, and including parts of an audio interview with Keith Richards (who recorded there with the Rolling Stones).
10A: Jamaica’s Film Yard (13:31, HD) – A tour of Henzell’s Kingston home/production center, featuring interviews with Sally, Jason, and Justine Henzell, and Maxine Walters.
A Conversation with Sir Ridley Scott (24:26, HD) – The director talks at length about his pre-fame working relationship with Henzell, including his time at 10A, almost acting as camera operator on The Harder They Come, learning to love reggae music, and various Jamaican adventures.
Out of Many, One Filmmaker: The Disciples of Perry Henzell (1:00:45, HD) – Interviews with some of the many filmmakers inspired by Henzell, including directors Chris Browne (Third World Cop, 1999), Storm Saulter (Sprinter, 2018), and Gerald “Rass Kassa” Hyndes (Tribes, 2009), and producer Maxine Walters.
Everyone a Star: The Original Cast (48:57, HD) – New interviews with No Place Like Home performers P.J. Soles, Carl Bradshaw, and Winston Stona.
Big Heap of Help: The Original Support Team (48:09, HD) – More new interviews with Perry’s first personal assistant Beverley Manley, No Place Like Home assistant director Robert “Bobby” Russell, and Cookie Kinkead.
Roots: The Family Henzell (46:05, HD) – The Henzell family, Sally, Justine, and Jason, talk about the man and his work.
How Perry Rocked the World (59:11, HD) – Composer/songwriter Steven Soles talks about his career and writing for No Place Like Home, record producer “Native” Wayne Jobson discusses Jamaican reggae/ska history, and journalist/writer Chris Salewicz focuses more directly on The Harder They Come soundtrack.
Live From the Reggae Awards (11:52, HD) – Red carpet interviews with stars of the Jamaican music industry, conducted by “Native” Wayne at Kingston’s most recent annual music awards show.
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