Point of View

An Interview with Justine Henzell
September 2, 2009, 8:27 pm
Filed under: At the Center

Justine Henzell, daughter of renowned filmmaker Perry Henzell, remembers March 25, 2006 like it was just yesterday. That night, the theater rendition of The Harder They Come, her father’s crown jewel on the big screen, premiered at The Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. Instead of watching the show, Justine observed her father very closely most of the night. For a long time, Perry Henzell had been working tirelessly to make the theater project come to life, even though he was battling cancer.

Justin Henzell, Photo by Jonathan Orenstein

Justin Henzell, Photo by Jonathan Orenstein

“I spent more time watching Perry than watching the show because I was so happy to see him enjoying it,” she remembers. “He was able to see it on stage before he passed.” Perry Henzell lost his life to cancer in November that year but his legacy continues to live on stage.

The Harder They Come made its US premiere on August 29 to a packed house at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.  Afros, white go-go boots and reggae beats are among the nostalgic treats audiences will get as they are whisked away to Kingston, Jamaica in the1970’s.

The musical tells the story of Ivan Martin, a country boy who arrives in Kingston with one thing on his mind: making a hit record. On his journey, Ivan falls prey to the corrupt music industry and turns to a life of crime. Ivan’s gun-wielding escapades lead him to become Jamaica’s most-wanted criminal and an underground reggae star.

Justine Henzell said the musical is a classic cautionary tale.  “It’s a story that can resonate across language, culture, and age groups,” she said.  “It’s how passionate you are about fulfilling your dream and what length you will go to do that.”

The play is also layered with infectious songs written by widely-celebrated Jamaican entertainer Jimmy Cliff, including  “The Harder They Come,” “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” and “Many Rivers to Cross.” Along with being the writer of the movie’s music, Cliff is also famous for playing the notorious Ivan in the movie, The Harder They Come, which inadvertantly launched his superstar career.

The movie The Harder They Come was released in 1972. Perry Henzell produced and directed the film. Trevor Rhone co-wrote the script with Perry. Justine said the intention was to make the first film where Jamaicans were portrayed authentically, which she attributes to its success.            

“He wasn’t trying to do a crossover film, so he didn’t water it down,” explains Justine. “It is because of that strength of character and realism that people gravitate to the story even now.”

It is widely-publicized that the film helped introduce Reggae to the world, as well as it being released at the same time Bob Marley was making hit records. “At the time, Reggae was big in Jamaica.” Justine continues, “Reggae hadn’t crossed over, especially in North America until Bob Marley and The Harder They Come. The combination really took Reggae to the world.”

Many who have seen the film would agree that its dark undertone is absent from the play, which includes colorful costumes, energetic dance routines, and a live band. Justine said it was done intentionally in order to achieve a lighter approach to the tale.  “We considered how to keep people entertained, while still absorbing quite a serious story,” she said. “The genre of musical theater tends to be a lighter medium.”

The story is based on the real-life story of Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, an outlaw turned folk-hero in Jamaica in the 1940’s. Justine Henzell said the musical aspect of the character was included after Jimmy Cliff was cast to play Ivan in the movie.  “Perry had to tread a very fine line between having a man who was an outlaw, who the audience is still rooting for,” Justine said.

But why retell the story of the outlaw hero more than 30 years later?

Perry Henzell was first approached about adapting the movie into a stage musical by theater producer Jan Ryan however, Justine said Perry was reluctant at first.  “Jan Ryan fell in love with the film when she saw it in the 70’s,” Justine said. “At first, Perry was not interested in reimagining it.”  Still, Ryan was persistent, and eventually convinced Perry of the film’s potential to become a huge sensation on stage, even though so much time has passed.

“We knew from the continued success of the soundtrack and of the film that the story was one that would continue to resonate with audiences all over the world,” Justine said.

For the last decade of Perry’s life, Justine worked closely with him. He died in 2006 after battling cancer for six years. Currently, she remains involved in the production as its story editor. One thing is certain for Justine- in the last few years of Perry’s life, he was very passionate about creating the musical.

“It gave him another reason to get up in the morning, and he was very committed to his work,” she said.

Aside from the celebratory aspects of the play, Justine said her father hoped audiences would get the message behind the story of Ivan Martin. “It’s a cautionary tale that we need to make sure people are given access and allowed to fulfill their dreams,” she said. Your initial reaction is to sing and dance, then you go home, and really think about what happened to this man.”

Justine is very excited about the US premier of The Harder They Come, and is sure Miami audiences will be captivated by the story.   “It’s as thought provoking as it is dance provoking,” she said. “Everybody loves to go out, and end the night singing, dancing, and feeling uplifted.”


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