By Michael Aushenker
Jamaica-based filmmaker Perry Henzell had always envisioned a cinematic trilogy: “The Harder They Come,” “No Place Like Home” and “Power Game.”
The first became legendary thanks to an iconic soundtrack, and the second became lost in the mist of time, only to be resurrected eight years ago, while the third surfaced only as a novel. The American Cinematheque will screen 1972’s “The Harder They Come” and 2006’s “No Place Like Home,” beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 5, at the Aero Theatre at 1328 Montana Ave. in Santa Monica.
Most fans of the reggae music genre have already embraced “The Harder They Come,” which made a star out of singer Jimmy Cliff and brought reggae and Cliff’s music beyond the outskirts of Kingston to a world audience. Soundtrack songs include Cliff’s title track and “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” (famously covered by seminal English punk band The Clash), and Scotty’s “Draw Your Brakes.”
The Aero’s screening of “The Harder They Come” is well timed, given the anticipation for Cliff’s Sept. 12 appearance at the Santa Monica Pier, which will close out this summer’s free “Twilight Concert Series.”
Less known is the back story behind “No Place Like Home,” Henzell’s derailed spiritual sequel which almost didn’t see the light of day had it not been for the efforts of Santa Monica’s David Garonzik, who became the movie’s producer in a trial-by-fire scenario.
“No Place Like Home,” a sort of “Harder They Come” in reverse in which Susan O’Neara, a Caucasian New Yorker who normally worked as the producer of commercials, plays a character on a road trip into Jamaica’s countryside.
After much difficulty, Henzell completed “No Place” circa 1982, around the time when iconic reggae singer-songwriter Bob Marley had passed away. Struggling to finance the film, he had to put what he shot on indefinite hold. Then, misfortune struck.
“The vault had a massive flood,” Garonzik explained. “All the footage was destroyed.”
Garonzik said that as a source of heartbreak, Henzell “never wanted to mention the film again.”
Henzell, who was too frustrated to return to film after his foiled sequel, wrote “Power Game,” where the two conflicts presented in his first two works converge, as a novel for a small press.
Meanwhile, in the early 2000s, Garonzik, who had worked as a projectionist running the screening room at independent film studio Miramax’s L.A. headquarters, without any knowledge of Henzell’s 1972 film or reggae, fell hard for “The Harder They Come” and was interested in cutting his teeth as a producer of a remake.
“It changed my life,” he said of the movie.
On a mission to Jamaica to find Henzell and get his blessing and the rights to such a reboot, Garonzik found Henzell’s son, Jason, thanks to a local travel show he appeared on.
“I told Jason, ‘I’m a huge fan of your father’s work,’” the producer said. “He said, ‘My dad would love to hear that.’”
Filmmaker Henzell lived on the north part of the island country and was quietly ailing from bone marrow disease. He was five years into his treatment when Garonzik entered his 400-year-old stone home to meet him, but Henzell remained a force of nature.
“In that true Jamaican spirit, he had so much strength,” Garonzik recalled. “He drove the car to come get us.”
In the early 1960s, instead of working the family business on sugar plantations, Henzell had gone to England, where he worked for BBC television, learned the ropes, and returned to Jamaica to direct the country’s first feature film shortly after the country had gained its independence in the early 1970s. The movie not only proved instrumental to Cliff’s career, but arguably the biggest of all reggae singer-songwriters, Marley, had piggy-backed a tour as an up-and-coming musician on “The Harder They Come’s” screenings on the U.S. college circuit. The persistent Henzell would fly all over the world, including Bangkok, Tokyo and Abuja, Nigeria carrying cans with a print of “Harder” directly to theater owners to have them screen the movie on consignment.
“Someone had given him a VHS tape of his last edit where he last left off (on ‘No Place’),” Garonzik explained. “A 50-minute edit. It was basically a copy of an old three-quarters tape shot off the screen of an editing table.”
“It was almost completely unwatchable,” he said. Nevertheless, Garonzik was impressed.
“It was like finding (buried treasure),” he said. “The scale of the film was amazing to me. Especially for a third world filmmaker doing aerial shots, tracking shots. It had socio-political (themes). That (tape) was all that existed of the film.”
With the help of Justine, Henzell’s daughter, Garonzik followed a paper trail of where film footage of the lost sequel had changed hands. In 2005, the path led to a post-production company in New Jersey, where 880 pounds of footage laid in storage within 450 boxes labeled “No Place Like Home.”
Garonzik called some favors. With the help of his friend, Jim Hardy, who ran HTV Illuminati, a Studio City post-production house, the footage was shipped out and transferred.
Henzell came to Los Angeles and stayed with a friend, actress Judy Geeson, while he, Garonzik and editor Alexis Chavez worked feverishly to complete the film. By the time Henzell returned to Jamaica, they had a rough cut in the can.
“He was working crazy hours,” Garonzik said. “I was blown away. He was 70 years old. He was also writing a musical version of ‘The Harder They Come,’ which was to premier in London.”
Crush Voodoo, a now-defunct Santa Monica post-production company, cleaned up the print while Riot did the color correction. Producer Chris Romano had boarded the project to help get the movie into theaters. In the midst of it all, the Toronto Film Festival expressed an interest by June 2006 in premiering “No Place” at the September 2006 event, and in July of that summer, the festival officially accepted the movie.
Then, in the first week of August, due to a hard drive failure, “all the work we had done from Christmas to August was all gone,” Garonzik said.
With only five weeks until the festival date, Garonzik said the seemingly cursed sequel had, once again, broken Henzell’s heart.
“Perry said, ‘This was not meant to be,’” Garonzik recalled.
However, the company had brought in computer experts who were able to retrieve the cut. Its frames re-shuffled, it took about a week to be restored to its original sequential form. While not a perfect cut, it was good enough to screen. At the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, “We had two shows, both sold out, both with a standing ovation,” Garonzik remembered. “It was amazing.”
Years in the making, from 1973-83 and then revived in 2004, “No Place Like Home” finally came together by 2006.
Back in Henzell’s home country, the Flashpoint Film Festival wanted to host the Jamaican premiere on the last day of November 2006. Henzell died the night before “No Place” screened at Flashpoint.
“It’s just a beautiful film, so many issues to comment on – land grabbing, the politics of community, interracial sex,” said its producer. “It’s not (preaching about) these issues, the film just is.”
By the summer of 2007, the film had been totally completed. In March 2010, as Cliff was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the American Cinematheque screened “No Place” at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.
“Women can relate to it more,” Garonzik said of “No Place.” Whereas “Harder They Come” is straight ‘Scarface,’ a gangster film, this is much more of an ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ It’s more of a love letter to Jamaica. It’s a road trip movie (like an ‘Easy Rider’).”
In addition to Garonzik, Roger Steffens, co-founder of KCRW’s “Reggae Beat,” founding editor of The Beat magazine, and founding chairman of the Reggae Grammy Committee, and Michael Ochs, publicist for “The Harder They Come” under American distributor Roger Corman and former host of KCRW’s “Archives Alive,” will speak following the screening of “The Harder They Come.”
Because of music clearance issues, the screening of “No Place Like Home” will be free.