Early in The Harder They Come, the Jamaican gritty crime melodrama legendary mostly for its spectacular Reggae soundtrack, co-writer/director Perry Henzell's naïve country boy protagonist Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) has just arrived in the city with big dreams of becoming a recording artist and zero money and resources to achieve it. In between begging random rich people for work, he happens upon a movie theatre that's showing the original Django. As Franco Nero pulls the minigun out of the coffin and fills an entire platoon of bad guys full of lead in that infamous scene, Henzell flash cuts to the Jamaican audience hooting and hollering in support of the anti-hero.
These cuts are revisited during vital moments in the climax, yet this time it's Ivan who's the anti-hero. Henzell lays out the thesis for his film right then and there, while also showcasing why he risked everything in order to scrape together what turned out to be the first feature film out of Jamaica: Working class and poor Jamaicans had looked up to white anti-heroes as power fantasy against a system that degraded and oppressed them, it's about time one of their own was represented on the big screen.
The Harder They Come follows a fairly typical rags-to-riches crime story as Ivan first makes his way through the predatory record business and gets screwed in the process, sells drugs to get by and eventually makes his way up in the world as a ruthless criminal. What makes Henzell's approach unique is that the "riches" part of the deal never materializes for Ivan in the most practical sense. He never really ends up becoming a wealthy crime lord, with the gaudy mansion and the hot trophy wife that goes with the package.
For him, fame is the ultimate compensation. He lusts for it as he records his first song, the titular track, and then relishes in his status as a folk legend as he leaves a trail of bodies behind him. The best scene in the film involves Ivan being recognized in a photo shop, frightened of getting caught, only for the person turning out to be a fan of his work and asking for an autograph. Is the man a fan of his music, which blows up as soon as he becomes public enemy number one, or is Ivan's art just an ancillary effect of his infamy? Henzell smartly doesn't provide a distinction, turning what could have been a run off the mill crime melodrama into a deft study on the concept of fame, and specifically why the Jamaican poor class desired it so.
As Ivan jumps from one prospect to another in order to make it as a star, the film carries a fairly episodic structure, but each of Ivan's misadventures adds to the motivation behind his ruthless and violent disposition by end of the story. The uniform attention to the narrative's themes glues the experience together. As a project scraped together by a group of plucky Jamaican filmmakers, The Harder They Come is far from technically perfect. It has many underlit scenes and sequences that were obviously shot on the fly because of budgetary and time reasons. Yet that's what also gives the movie its distinct raw flavor, providing an unfiltered look into poor Jamaican city life, full of terrifying violence and reinvigorating cultural energy.
Shout did a terrific job with the 4K transfer from the original 16mm negative. While cleaning up almost all of the visible scratches and blemishes, they also retained the heavy grain and contrast of the film without attempting to digitally scrub it or lighten up some shots. This retains the film's rough look while establishing the best possible A/V presentation on home video.
The disc defaults to the DTS-HD 2.0 mono track instead of the DTS-HD 5.1 remix, and for good reason. The original mono track bristles with energy and depth, especially when it comes to representing the many famous songs on the soundtrack. The 5.1 track provides a lighter and breezier experience, without much surround presence. For the vibrant midnight movie mood, I'd go with the mono track.
Commentary by David Katz: Katz, a Jimmy Cliff biographer, gives a lot of important technical information about the scrappy way the film was put together. It has a lot of quiet parts, but is very informative.
One and All: A 10-minute featurette about how the film was put together.
A Hard Road to Travel: An hour-long making-of documentary that was included in previous DVD releases. If you want a uniform understanding of the production and only have an hour to spare, watch this above all other extras.
Interview with Jimmy Cliff: A rare interview from the ‘80s with the Reggae legend. The video quality is almost unwatchable, but it's the content that counts.
Interview with Arthur Gordon: Henzell's friend and colleague talks about what it was like to work for him.
Interview with Perry Henzell: In this 10-minute amateur interview, Henzell mostly talks about his sequel ideas for The Harder They Come.
Interview with David MacDonald: The film's cinematographer gives lengthy technical information about the shoot and the corners they had to cut in this new extensive interview.
Interview with Yvonne Brewster: The line producer talks candidly about the production, including some funny jabs at how bad the first draft of the screenplay was.
We also get a Music Video for the title song and a Stills Gallery.
No Place Like Home: This is a real treat. We get a whole second feature, the lost docudrama that was Henzell's follow-up to The Harder They Come. This is a much gentler and mellow story, examining the disconnect between outsiders looking at Jamaica as a land of exotic beauty and the locals who struggle under its many economic and political troubles. Henzell adopts a loose docu-realism aesthetic as he dives into a woman's (Susan O'Meara) discovery of the real Jamaica as she searches for the star (P.J. Soles) of her shampoo commercial. This plot proposition is merely used as a narrative shoestring for the protagonist's inner journey. Incomplete for decades, the film was put together and premiered this year. The 1080p transfer retains the rough grainy look and contains more scratches and blemishes than the main feature. Like the main feature, I'd go with the mono track instead of the 5.1 mix.
Commentary: This very conversational and loose commentary involves Henzell's wife and mostly goes into the vibe of the crew during the production.
A Filmmaker's Odyssey: A comprehensive making-of documentary that covers the film from its inception, all the way to its eventual restoration decades later.
Restoration: A quick look into how the film was restored, with side-by-side comparisons.
P.J. Soles Vocal Track: Soles' original vocals from the song, World Full of Beauty, featured in the film.
Steven Soles Guitar Track: The guitar only track for the same song.
Anatomy of Three Scenes: An analysis of three sequences from the film, including how they were put together with the limited budget at hand.
Duppies in the Control Room: An update on Dynamic Sounds Studio, which is featured heavily in The Harder They Come, complete with new footage of the location.
10A: A loving analysis of the production space where Henzell hung out and discovered new talent.
Interview with Ridley Scott: Yes, that Ridley Scott, who used to come to Jamaica with commercial productions during the early ‘70s and formed a relationship with Henzell.
Out of Many, One Filmmaker: Three Jamaican filmmakers lovingly talk about Henzell's vital importance in Jamaican cinema.
Everyone a Star: A lengthy series of interviews with the cast from both The Harder They Come and No Place Like Home.
Whole Heap of Help: Some crewmembers talk about the hardship and fun of putting The Harder They Come together.
Roots: Candid interviews with Henzell's wife and two children about the director's personal life.
How Perry Henzell Rocked The World: Another piece about Henzell's artistic influence, this time with interviews from Jamaican musicians.
Live from The Reggae Awards: Red carpet interviews with Jamaican musicians about The Harder They Come's legacy.
With an insane amount of extras that not only covers every cultural and technical aspect of the film, but adds a whole second feature into the mix, a terrific A/V presentation that faithfully reproduces the intended aesthetic, Shout has gone above and beyond in pleasing fans of this cult classic. Highly recommended.