From the Underworld of Jamaica to the London Stage

  • Share
  • Read Later

Roland Bell in The Harder They Come.

It was a tough ticket the night the film The Harder They Come premiered at the Carib Theater in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1972. A crowd of some 10,000 turned up and a near-riot ensued. Like all those who got in, the island's Prime Minister and his wife were jammed two or more to a seat, while instead of a red carpet entrance, director Perry Henzell's wife, Sally, had to be bodily lifted in over the heads of the crowd. Just 6 at the time, Henzell's daughter Justine wasn't allowed to attend, even though some of her earliest memories are of being on set while her father shot the film that was to become a milestone of Jamaican culture and one of cinema's most unlikely survival stories. Thirty-five years on, Justine Henzell, in London this week for the opening night of a musical version of The Harder They Come at the Theatre Royal, remembers what the fuss was all about. "Jamaicans had never seen themselves on the big screen before," she says. "In those days we hardly ever saw ourselves on TV or commercials, let alone in a feature film."

Beyond Jamaica, audiences were less excitable when the film opened. What, after all, were they to make of a radical slice of experimental cinema verite shot by an unknown director in Super 16 mm, about a Jamaican boy who leaves the idyllic poverty of the countryside for the squalid poverty of Kingston to follow his dream of becoming a recording star, only to die in a hail of bullets on the beach? Although Henzell's film was a sharp critique on the closed, cutthroat circle of corruption between the island's music industry, police, and drug dealers, what eventually made the rest of the world take note was the film's blistering soundtrack, which was a breakthrough moment for reggae music. As well as the songs like "Many Rivers To Cross" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want" that were written and sung by young singer Jimmy Cliff, (who also played the lead character, Ivan), the soundtrack showcased Toots and the Maytals' "Pressure Drop," Desmond Dekker's "Israelites," the Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon." Before the world knew or cared about Bob Marley, here was reggae's defining mix of roots rhythms and social consciousness. For the decade before Marley's best-of album Legend in 1984, The Harder They Come was nothing less than the world's best-selling reggae album.

The success of the soundtrack helped sustain Henzell's film at the box office, where it has remained a cult staple of festivals and late-night college specials ever since. But after he struggled through the 70s to finance and shoot a still more experimental follow-up, No Place Like Home, the director's career stalled completely when the negatives went missing in a New Jersey warehouse. "It broke his heart when he lost that footage," says his daughter Justine. "He'd put all his time energy and money into it and then it was gone." So Henzell gave up on filmmaking and started writing books, which, like 1982's The Power Game, proved to be just as distinctive, well-reviewed and as un-lucrative as his movie career. A few years ago, the missing film was discovered in New York City and in 2006, Henzell finally licked No Place Like Home into shape and got it shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. In a poignant coda, the film had its Jamaican premiere on Dec. 1 — the day after Henzell, 70, died of cancer.

Over the years, Henzell had received various offers to stage The Harder They Come. "But he turned them all down," says Justine, "because they meant having to relinquish creative control — something Perry found very hard to do." But when Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid, directors of Stratford's Theatre Royal, on a trip to Jamaica four or five years ago, knocked on his door, they were only too pleased to have his creative input. So the musical version of The Harder They Come, as adapted by Perry Henzell and directed by Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid, opened last March at Stratford's 460-seat Theatre Royal, a plush Victorian-era playhouse with a modern mission to foster black and community productions. Against expectations, the musical's short-run became a word-of-mouth success and broke all their box office records, so now the show is being restaged there as a tribute to the late director but also with an eye on making the journey from the East End of London to the West End stage — a delicious and not so unlikely prospect for a theatreland that is high as a kite right now on musicals and nostalgia.

To get there, the production has sidestepped all the problems of making the music carry the plot by keeping the 17-strong cast and band onstage throughout. Between them, in thickest Jamaican patois and the merest whiff of ganja smoke, they summon the saucy spirit of the Kingston dancehall one minute, the legend of the outlaw the next. Best of all they rip through glorious renditions of hit after hit. Make room, Mamma Mia! For as sure as the sun will shine, The Harder They Come is gonna get its share.