July 7, 2009

The Harder They Come (1972)
Grade: 72/100

Director: Perry Henzell
Stars: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw

What it's about. Probably the best known Jamaican movie. Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) moves from the country into Kingston, the big city, with ambitions of becoming a reggae star. Early attempts at securing employment fail, so he attaches himself to a church choir controlled by a regimental preacher (Basil Keane). His real interest there is in Elsa (Janet Bartley), a young hottie who returns his interest.

But Ivan cannot get along with authority figures, a pattern that repeats throughout the movie. Soon, the preacher kicks Ivan out of the church. Ivan tries to take a church bicycle, but is physically resisted. A brutal knife fight follows, then comes corporal punishment and a return to the streets. Ivan manages to cut a reggae record, then discovers that the Jamaican music industry is controlled by one man, Mr. Hilton (Bobby Charlton), who wants all the profits.

Frustrated but still seeking a big score, Ivan becomes a small-time marijuana distributor under Jose (Carl Bradshaw). The ever-mettlesome Ivan asks too many questions, forcing Jose to call in corrupt cops to arrest Ivan. Instead, Ivan shoots them, and goes on the run as a most wanted gangster. He becomes a folk hero, and his one record becomes a local bestseller. But you know what happened to Bobby Fuller when he fought the law.

How others will see it. The Harder They Come has a major obstacle for American viewers to overcome. The Jamaican English dialect is often impossible to understand. The original distributed film was (wisely) subtitled, but the "25th Anniversary Edition", the version I saw, did not have subtitles. The non-Jamaican can understand enough dialogue to follow the plot, but many lines are lost in translation.

The soundtrack is far more accessible for American audiences. It is outstanding, and dominated by several Jimmy Cliff compositions and performances. Cliff was one of Jamaica's most promising young music stars after the success of "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" which made the charts in the U.S. and U.K. in 1970. As it turned out, his career peaked with the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, which also had tracks by other well-known reggae artists, such as Desmond ("I don't want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde") Dekker and Toots & The Maytals.

Soundtrack and shooting location besides, The Harder They Come has the feel of a blaxploitation movie. The low budget production has a no-name cast aside from its star, Jimmy Cliff. The violence level was enough to earn an X rating in the UK, although in these more accepting times the rating has been downgraded to UK:15. User ratings at imdb are at Casablanca levels for those under 18, but drop with age since older viewers see Cliff's character less favorably.

How I felt about it. The hip-hop music of today, M.I.A. and sometimes Jay-Z excepted, seems so steeped in formula that the 37-year-old soundtrack to The Harder They Come appears revolutionary by comparison. They really don't make them like they used to. Everything has gone electronic, such that you don't even know whose voices are really on the records, much less the 'live' recordings. What I mean to say is, it's a great soundtrack, although it must be regarded as a separate work from the film itself.

The effective message of the movie is to go out and buy reggae records. But that likely isn't what director and co-writer Perry Henzell had in mind. The movie is purportedly set in the 1950s and is based on a real-life Jamaican outlaw saga. Don't know about that, but it does appear that Henzell means to use Ivan's story to present Jamaican business and government as corrupt and repressive.

The problem is, Ivan lacks the patience to work within the system, whether it be Keane's church, Bradshaw's drug ring, or Charlton's record business. He just hates too much the idea of his sweat paying off first for someone else. As Ringo Starr sang in 1971, "You've got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues."