One of the few Jamaican-made features to enjoy wide exhibition in the U.S., The Harder They Come fizzled during its initial release and then found a more welcoming audience on the midnight-movie circuit, where the picture’s vibrant soundtrack helped familiarize Americans with reggae music. In fact, iconic reggae star Jimmy Cliff won international notoriety by playing the film’s leading role. Based on the real-life exploits of a poor Jamaican who became an anti-establishment folk hero, The Harder They Come takes place in the 1950s, when Ivan Martin (Cliff) travels from rural Jamaica to the big city in search of work. Eventually, he starts earning room and board as a handyman for a moralistic preacher (Basil Keane). Ivan falls in love with a young woman (Janet Bartley) who sings in the preacher’s choir, and then gets into trouble with the law while pursuing his real dream of becoming a reggae singer.
After many false starts, Jamaican music-industry kingpin Jose (Carl Bradshaw) agrees to a recording session with Ivan, and the session is the most thrilling scene in the movie: Cliff gives a heroic performance of his song “The Harder They Come,” an upbeat anthem for the disenfranchised. After the session, Jose pressures Ivan into signing away the rights to the song, forcing Ivan to look elsewhere for income. He ends up becoming a small-time pot dealer, so at the same time his song is dominating the island’s airwaves, Ivan must avoid capture by authorities. Reflecting the movie’s real-life inspiration, Ivan transforms into a rebel hero for the impoverished people of Jamaica.
Directed and co-written by Jamaican native Perry Henzell (whose only other film project was the feature No Place Like Home, which he started in the ’70s but didn’t complete until 2006), The Harder They Come is quite poorly made, suffering from murky cinematography and sloppy editing. The cast’s thick Jamaican accents also make deciphering dialogue tricky. However, there’s a reason the picture kept midnight-movie viewers coming back for more: The picture has infectious energy, riffing on the romantic theme of a man pushed to criminality by an unfair society, and Cliff is appealing despite lacking any real skill as an actor. More importantly, the music kills, from the title tune to Cliff’s soaring ballad “Many Rivers to Cross” to the handful of songs by other artists used as background music.
The Harder They Come: FUNKY