While it might surprise some people, there was a time when hardly anyone in North America knew what reggae music sounded like. Of course this was back in the dark ages of the early 1970s. For most people in North America, their introduction to reggae came via Bob Marley and the Wailers. However, some us discovered its joys from an another source, the soundtrack album from the 1972 movie The Harder They Come. While some of the songs were in mono, and some of the recordings weren’t of the highest quality, the music represented a broad cross section of music that had been or was being produced in Kingston Jamaica at the time.
Names like Desmond Decker, Toots and The Maytels, and others with equally exotic sounding names, some whose music would never be heard again (according to the liner notes on the LP one of the artists on the album was in jail and one was on death row at the time of its release). However, the man whose career both the LP and movie really helped kickstart was both the movie’s star and the singer and writer of the best songs on the soundtrack, Jimmy Cliff. Ironically, while the soundtrack to the movie has been fairly easy to come by since its release, actually seeing the movie has been another matter all together.
Thankfully, its now being made available for audiences through the online digital service VHX and iTunes through a distribution deal with Syndctd Entertainment. I say thankfully, because I’ve been wanting to see this movie for decades, and having finally been given the chance, I can say not only wasn’t I disappointed, it actually exceeded my expectations.
The movie follows the life of Jimmy Cliff’s character Ivan from the moment he leaves his life in the country to try and begin something new in Kingston, Jamaica. While his eyes are filled with stars and hopes for the future, he gets off to a bad start when all his possessions are stolen almost the minute he gets off the bus. It’s not a very promising start for the young man, and it also foreshadows much of what will happen to him in the future. For Ivan discovers, no matter what he tries, the odds are stack against him of ever getting ahead.
While he dreams of becoming a famous musician, he discovers that’s not going to be the road to fame he thinks it is. When he is able to finally record his song, he finds he either has to take the record companies lousy deal of selling it for $20.00, or nobody will ever hear it played. Even when he turns to selling marijuana to make a living, he finds things just as stacked against him. The system is tightly controlled by the police and their chosen dealers. When he begins to demand more of a share of the profits for himself and his fellow distributers he’s branded a trouble maker. He becomes a genuine outlaw when he shoots the police officers sent to bring him in and teach him a lesson. Ironically, as his outlaw/hero status grows sales of his record increase making him even idol for the poor and oppressed of Kingston’s shanty towns.
The movie plays out like a cross between the classic Spaghetti Westerns of the day and an exercise in social realism. Cliff’s character is not a likeable person. He’s not really interested in anything except getting ahead, or as the song “The Harder They Come” says, “So as sure as the sun will shine/I’m going to get my share now of what’s mine/And then the harder they come the harder they fall one and all”. While the song’s lyrics might sound like a rallying cry for the poor and oppressed to demand their rights, in the context of the movie and the character of Ivan it’s not quite so altruistic. Ivan wants his chance at the good life, just like everyone else. The big cars, the flashy clothes and the idolization of the masses. He wants celebrity.
While he might not get celebrity, he gets the next best thing, notoriety. When his name is splashed all over the newspapers as Kingston’s most wanted for killing three cops his only comment is, “See I told you I’d become famous”. What’s frightening about this is how much it foreshadows what’s to come in the inner cities of North America. How whole generations of inner city young men, and women to some extent, have been forced to follow the same path of greed and violence by a society which offers them no alternatives. How’s a person like Ivan supposed to react to a culture which tells him a man’s worth is measured by what he is able to amass materially?
He has a real talent and the hopes and dreams that come with it. When he discovers his talent only exists for others to exploit, and he won’t reap any of its benefits, he naturally becomes bitter and looks for a way to get his own. The system seems to designed to keep him and everyone else like him in their place and make sure the wealth only stays in the hands of the few. Ivan’s descent, or ascent, depending on how you look at it, into the role of the outlaw, is almost out of his own hands. As soon as he makes the decision to demand a larger share of the pie, whether from his music or from drug money, his fate is sealed.
One thing anyone who watches this newly remastered version of the movie will quickly become aware of is the inconsistency of its quality. Unfortunately, we’re talking about a movie was filmed more than 40 years ago, and under less than ideal conditions, as it was made on location in Kingston. I’ve a feeling this cut was pieced together from various prints of the film in order to try and make it as good as possible. However, the final result appears a little piecemeal. For instance, some of the scenes contain sub-titles while others don’t (Most of the characters speak Jamaican patois with thick accents) and there doesn’t appear to be any reason for their disappearance from one frame to the next. At other times the image quality changes radically from scene to scene, with the picture being washed out in one frame and clean the next.
However, you shouldn’t let these technical anomalies deter you from shelling out the few dollars required to stream and download this movie. In some ways, they actually give the film a stamp of authenticity. This is a raw and gritty depiction of life in the shanty towns of Kingston Jamaica, where nothing is smooth or polished. There’s nothing glamourous or sexy about the life these people lead, or the violence they are forced into. The movie’s roughness around the edges ensures there’s no chance of forming the wrong impression. You won’t find any glorification of violence or the accumulation of wealth here, just an accurate depiction of how lives are ruined by both.
Of course, one of the biggest draws of the movie is still the soundtrack. This isn’t the reggae were used to hearing either, it’s what some would refer to as roots reggae I guess. It’s rawer, and more pop influenced than what Marley and others made popular. However, it was the sound of Kingston in 1972. Some of it we only hear incidentally, over the radio, while some of it is played as part of the soundtrack, but all of it helps build the atmosphere of the desperate life these people were leading in the early 1970s. The slums of Kingston were the crucible which gave reggae its shape and its context, and the music heard in this movie shows its birth pangs and what it had to fight against in order to be heard.
After seeing this movie you’ll gain a better understanding of just why Marley is such a cultural icon in Jamaica and why Peter Tosh was assassinated by unknown gunmen for being so outspoken. Reggae was the sound of hope for a better future and reflected the fears and ambitions of the poorest people in Kingston. Watching The Harder They Come gives you a pretty damn good idea of how this came about. Not only is it an interesting and well told story, it’s just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. For all those who wonder where the disaffected youth willing to turn themselves into walking bombs come from, watching this movie will tell you all you need to know.