Film: The Harder They Come
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.
I’ve never been to Jamaica, but I’ve been to the Bahamas. When I was there, I came back with a raging lung infection. My doctor told me that if I spent time in places that were unclean, the chances were better than average that I’d get the same thing again. Pleurisy hurts a lot, and I don’t look forward to having it again. That being the case, the closest I’ll likely get to Jamaica is The Harder They Come.
If you guessed that the plot of a film taking place in Jamaica would involve reggae music and bales of marijuana…good guess. Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin (reggae great Jimmy Cliff) moves from the country to the city looking for work. Specifically, he wants to get into the recording business. The difference between him and most of the other people who want to cut a record is that he actually has talent (I mean, him being Jimmy Cliff and all).
To get started, he gets the name of a preacher (Basil Keane) who gives him a little work and a lot more trouble. The preacher is the guardian of Elsa (Janet Bartley), who is sheltered and an innocent. It’s evident pretty quickly that Ivan wants her and the preacher wants her, too. When she lends Ivan a key to the church to practice his song, the preacher accuses them of knocking boots and kicks him off his property. The problem for Ivan is that this means the loss of his bicycle, one that he built himself and put his own money into. He gets into a fight with another man and wins pretty convincingly, but bloodies the other man so severely that he’s punished by the law. Rather than lock him up on a first offense, he’s given eight lashes with a cane, a fact that will come to be important as the second act closes.
So Ivan runs off with Elsa and he eventually cuts a record (the title track for the film). However, the recording industry is so corrupt that he’s paid only $20 for the record and is forced to sign away all of the rights. Knowing that he has to work, he gets a job trafficking in the ganja from an acquaintance named Jose (Carl Bradshaw). Ivan doesn’t do well in the trade, though. He wants too much and wants to move too fast, which gets him in trouble. The trade, of course, is controlled through the police, so when Ivan gets out of hand, Jose sics the po-po on him.
So remember that part at the start that I said would become important at the close of the second act? Yeah—Ivan decides that he doesn’t want anything more to do with the police or law enforcement, so he shoots the motorcycle cop trying to pull him over. In the following pursuit, Ivan kills two more cops and then chases down Jose and essentially destroys him.
I’d rather not go into the rest of the film, which essentially consists of Ivan on the run, living far above his means and not caring because he is both outlaw and celebrity, and his sudden notoriety has caused his record to become a hit. But, of course, the noose begins to tighten, and as the third act draws to a close, the film comes to its inevitable conclusion.
There are echoes of films like Super Fly in this, echoes that would be picked up in later films The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and even Boyz N the Hood. There is a blending here of desire, poverty, crime, and murder that makes the comparison impossible to avoid. The Harder They Come is in many ways more primal than these other films. It’s dirtier than the other films for sure, the poverty and death and heat and squalor is far more oppressive and brutal here.
The film is partially subtitled because a great deal of it is in a Jamaican patois that is virtually impossible to understand by someone who doesn’t grow up around it. There’s a beauty to the sound of the voices and the lilting patterns it makes despite it being completely undecipherable.
Perhaps the strongest part of the film is the soundtrack, which introduced America to reggae music in the 1970s. It ranks with the great soundtracks of the ‘70s certainly, and also with the great soundtracks of all time. Cliff performs the title song, of course, but there are a number of other greats here, too—songs like “Pressure Drop” and “Johnny Too Bad.”
The acting is clunky at times, a bit ugly and unprofessional. This is countered by some very good acting in many of the characters as well as the unmistakable charisma of Jimmy Cliff. I’m hard pressed to call this a great movie, but it is a noteworthy one and an important one, and well worth seeing, if only for the chance to see Jimmy Cliff before most of the world outside of Jamaica knew who he was.
Why to watch The Harder They Come: Life on the bleeding edge.
Why not to watch: If you turn off the subtitles, you’ve got some difficulties.