Perry Henzell (1936-2006)

8. 11. 2007 | Rubriky: Articles,Lives

[by Ken Hunt, London] The cult filmmaker Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) was, and shall ever remain, iconic. Mind you, in Jamaica and in Britain both, the film had a hard start. In Jamaica, it caused riots when frustrated audiences couldn’t get into cinemas to see it. In Britain, when it was first screened, it met with apathy even in Brixton in London, SW9, the spiritual heartland of the expat Jamaican community. It took word-of-mouth recommendations for Henzell’s fictional story combining reggae studio hard knocks, hard times in Kingston and righteous criminality of a post-Robin Hood kind to take off. It hit the spirit of the times head-on.

Mind you, when it took off, seeing it in Brixton was a rite of passage. It came with full-on audience participation. Audiences seemed to have two parts Jamaica (or proxy Jamaica) to one part ganja and Dragon Stout in their bloodstream. Going to the cinema in Brixton was an unruly update on the bedlam of Saturday morning children’s pictures. In those days when cinemas were divided into ‘smoking’ and ‘non-smoking’ sections (reminiscent of having ‘pissing’ and ‘non-pissing’ sections in swimming baths), the air was heavy with cannabliss and contact highs. Baddies got booed, Jimmy Cliff’s leading character got cheered, every spliff, every field of green got oohed and aahed. People sang along to the Harder They Come soundtrack.

Henzell died on 30 November 2006 in Treasure Island, Jamaica, aged 70 – the day after his much-delayed film No Place Like Home received its Jamaican premiere. He was born in Porta Maria, Jamaica on 7 March 1936. The Harder They Come deserves the hosanna ‘classic’ in far too many ways to list briefly. In 1972 it was a declaration of cultural sovereignty ten years after Jamaican independence, a declaration that Jamaican cinema had come of age and the nation’s first feature film of international stature and impact. Henzell had made one of what was called Third World cinema’s finest achievements. On its heels came the revelations of the Wailers – another story for another time – but that was music of a different sort.

The Harder They Come was many people’s reggae baptism and one of the things that set the film apart was the world-class quality of its musical soundtrack. Imagine a world without Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want, The Harder They Come, Many Rivers To Cross and Sitting In Limbo, Toots Hibbert and The Maytals’ Pressure Drop or The Slickers’ Johnny Too Bad. The soundtrack became a long-lived staple in Island Records’ catalogue. Its songs can still be heard, continents apart, in the music of David Lindley and John Martyn. There was nothing like it beforehand. Much of it was Perry Henzell’s doing.

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