(1972) dir. Perry Henzell
I had long been wanting to see the 1970’s Jamaican crime film The Harder They Come after reading about it some years ago. Circumstances being what they’ve been, I didn’t get a chance to see this influential and yet pretty obscure film until finally just now. The film’s influence, however, didn’t turn out to be so much upon cinema itself, but on its music and culture, as the film’s soundtrack, featuring a number of songs by star Jimmy Cliff, was apparently the first major in-road made by reggae music in the United States.
The film itself, though, is also very interesting. Released in 1972, The Harder They Come is a sort of classic crime drama, about a young man from the country who comes to the big city in hopes of making it big in the music business. But the key element is the setting and production of the film. This is Kingston at the beginning of the 1970’s, a place already notable for the ska music and other popular genres that have arisen from its heart and people, but still a place of great poverty, street hustling, and crime.
Shot with a near verite style, using non-actors in many if not all roles, including Cliff, who the director picked out off of an album cover for his dramatic possibilities, there is an honesty in the people and the location shooting that gives impressive power an immediacy to what could otherwise be considered a fairly tradtional crime story. Adding to that, the story itself, is roughly based on a true life figure, a populist criminal musician from a time before.
As Cliff arrives in town to deliver the news of his grandmother’s passing to his mother, he tries to land “honest” work, but is turned down and winds up going to a meglamaniacal “preacher” who offers work but under strict rules, especially around his virginal adopted child, to whom Cliff’s character is attracted. Cliff’s character sees the opportunity to make a record and make it big, but the system is set against him. He’s offered $20 for his recording, and he finds no other way to enter either radio or dance clubs with his music unless he wants to play along with the non-Black management who controls the whole of the industry.
His frustration in work, piety, and popular musical success put him in line for the drug trade. But much like the other roads to access money, the system is set in place. One does what one is told, and if anyone tries to buck the system, they become quick fodder as a fall guy for the mafia.
Cliff’s character is a talented individualist, who strives for more, and whose ego drives him to fight these systems, much to his own detriment. But as he sings about the oppression in his song, and his crimes drive him to star status in the papers and eventually on the radio, he manages, with great risk and great loss to become the populist icon, guns in both hands.
I’ve never been a fan of pure reggae but I’ve come around a lot to many other styles of Jamaican music that precedes that form. The soundtrack is indeed something else. One can only imagine how it came across in 1972. And the film is a solid, earnest endeavor, with great performances by Cliff and others.
Writer/director Perry Henzell intended this film to be the first of a trilogy, but money never came around and so this film is the anomaly that it is. A fascinating glance into a time and place no doubt much changed as so much of the world has, and a truly moving and engrossing story as well. I did turn on the subtitles, though the film is in English. Some of it is more easily discerned than other parts, but the musicality of the voices, echoing of some hard to place English town accents, is actually quite pleasant to hear.