Monday, August 18, 2014

The Harder They Come

1972. 120 min. R - some nudity, killings, tamarind switch, you'll need the subtitles.
IMDB says... Wishing to become a successful Reggae singer, a young Jamaican man finds himself tied to corrupt record producers and drug pushers.

The 73rd Virgin says... The best reggae movie ever made with the best soundtrack; the best black exploitation movie ever made; the best near-documentary of third world darkness and vibrant, buoyant rebellion ever made; and a clear-eyed study of celebrity culture that anticipates Snoop Dog by about thirty years. That about cover it? Forever in my Top 10. Only running about 7.1 on IMDb. Pffft.

Ivanhoe Martin (singing star Jimmy Cliff) comes down out of the rural hills of Jamaica headed for Kingston to find his mother and to try to make it in the big city. He brings a mango, the clothes on his back, and cardboard suitcases stuffed full. He’s quickly relieved of the suitcases and is greeted unenthusiastically by Mom.

Recognizing the hazard of being alone and starving in trench town, he drifts toward a local Pentecostal church and, although he has no feeling for Christianity, he develops a passing interest in a comely choir member, who happens to be the pastor’s hand-selected future fruit tree. Like every other youth in town he also hopes to cut a record. With great efficiency, these early scenes establish the day-to-day struggle to survive in an economy and culture rigged against 95% of the people. These people don’t work at beach front hotels.

But the film is more than just third world struggle. This revival scene featuring an undoubtedly real preacher is just explosive, and the editing is brilliant.

Since he’s fixed up a bicycle, Ivan gets to deliver the church’s revival music LP to the local record pressing plant, and manages to ingratiate himself enough with the demonic record producer Mr. Hilton to get an audition. This almost uninterrupted recording scene seems to be shot live with just a couple reaction shots, and is more visually interesting than a thousand routine music videos. The subsequent robbery of all royalties was repeated thousands of times in Jamaica and elsewhere.

While being kicked out of the church he gets into an altercation with one of the caretakers and cuts him up. Whatever you think of the special effects, having Jimmy Cliff in your face with a knife is a fairly effective visual. The judge considers him to be salvageable, which leads to an unpleasantly organic scene where he is strapped over a barrel and has his buttocks lashed with a tamarind switch until he reflexively urinates on the ground. Shaft was never like this.

Back on his ass, with no money from his soon to be hit recording, Ivan falls in with ganja traders, the ravenous protection marketer “Jose”…

…and the wise, soft spoken and wildly dreadlocked Rastafarian trader “Pedro”. The unidentified trader smokin’ up and selling matching pistols might as well be old Satan himself. Pedro doesn’t want Ivan to buy the guns.

And that’s enough plotline. Suffice it to say that while Ivan and his friends are sitting in a movie theater watching some god-awful Italian Western, one of his companions counsels “hero can’t dead ‘til the last reel.” Ivan’s gradual decline through record company greediness and his own ill-formed priorities and judgment bring us to the slightly surreal climax.

Jimmy Cliff is perfect and charismatic in his role, and the rest of the acting is fine with entirely local commercial actors or delightful amateurs.

What makes the movie great is, of course, the music, and a nearly documentary gaze into a society that was almost unknown outside of Jamaica. There is also a lot of story here, difficult to follow at times, but fascinating in its depth. And it was all shot on glorious Super 16mm film.

The soundtrack is famous and there’s not a weak song on it. The album liner notes breathlessly observe that the writer of the eternal “Johnny Too Bad” for the Slickers was on death row by the time the movie came out. This sounds apocryphal and, as they say in journalism, “too good to check”. But as much as we nowadays enjoy having our lines blurred between bad guys and pretend bad guys, these brothers were keeping it real in the truest sense of the word.
It’s hard to describe in retrospect the impact this had on a group of white college boys in the Midwest in 1979. Still reeling from the mechanical mincing foppery of the disco age, and trying to dodge the ubiquitous urban cowboy movement, - and being too far from the coasts to have much exposure to the punks - we needed heroes. Imperturbable, inscrutable, ganja-smoking bad asses like Jimmy Cliff, Gregory Isaacs, and Burning Spear did nicely, and the weird patina of self-celebrating spirituality and the unspoken but overwhelming sexism of Rastafarianism only added to the aura.  These heroes were both more broadening and safer than falling in with the urban cowboy crowd. If I wanted to go somewhere every night, drink beer, get in a fight, fall off a mechanical bull, and wear a hat - that was completely within reach - but I was unlikely to be riding a little motor scooter through Kingston with ganja in my backpack and my .38 next to it - and my new 45 RPM right next to them both – with my weekend wife seated behind me.

“Ivan” would be name-checked in dozens of English punk and ska music references throughout the 70s. The soundtrack album had a huge effect and was played constantly on what was then beginning to be referred to as “college radio.”

Jimmy Cliff’s smiling visage occasionally shows up in Jamaica tourism ads and he was in the mostly forgettable Robin Williams/Peter O’Toole comedy “Club Paradise” in 1986, but he remains an international star. He converted to Islam in the 70s, but claims, “I couldn’t align myself with any one particular movement or religion so as to limit myself to anywhere or anything like that”. Hopefully, he won’t get his head chopped off as an apostate for that statement.


  1. Terrific review. I never "got" reggae until 1986, when I took a trip to Jamaica. It was the week of the Chernobyl accident if i recall correctly. Anyway, i was sitting on the private gringo beach in Ocho Rios when 3 early teen Jamaican boys showed up bearing guitars and a homemade drum. They launched into an impromptu set of Bob Marley songs. Looking at the sunset and, yes, possibly having sampled a bit of the local recreational produce, it all suddenly made sense. To this day I contend that "No Woman, No Cry" is possibly the greatest song ever written. I will try to catch this movie.

  2. Thanks.
    "a government yard in Trench Town."
    Never been there. Better an ideal of the mind probably.