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"Come" and Gone: Perry Henzell

Posted at 3:30 PM on December 7, 2006 by Euan Kerr

Perry Henzell's passing is worth a few thoughts. Henzell wrote, produced and directed "The Harder They Come" the film which launched reggae music and Jimmy Cliff on US and European audiences. (Admit it, the lyrics of the theme song are already running through your head. "Well, they tell me of a pie up in the sky...." )

The film, the first locally-produced feature made in Jamaica, tells the story of a musician turned gangster, whose exploits make him a folk hero and a marked man. Made on a shoe-string it took two years to complete, but 40,000 people turned up in December 1972 at the Kingston theater for the premier. (It only had 1,500 seats.)

Nevertheless Henzell struggled to get distribution, despite winning an award at Cannes. He ended up having to do it himself. It took a while but the film became a cult favorite on the college circuit and opened a door to Jamaican music and culture to the rest of the world.

"The Harder They Come" is interesting in other ways too. In the version I saw in the basement cinema of the Edinburgh Filmhouse back in the 70's, the subtitles only ran for the first few minutes. After that you were on your own, a sink or swim approach which has its risks, but if the audience is willing to come along, it produces a profound sense of engagement.

Perry Henzell only made two features in his lifetime. He shot the second, called "No Place Like Home," years ago, but it was only completed this year, in part because a lab lost the negative during a bankruptcy. That film premiered at Toronto in September and screened for the first time in Jamaica the day after he died.

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