Produced, directed and co-written by advertising director Perry Henzel, The Harder They Come was Jamaica's first and finest feature film. Released in 1972 it starred Jamaica's first reggae superstar, Jimmy Cliff.
As relevant now as it was then, The Harder They Come is based on a true story and tells the tale of Ivanhoe Martin (Cliff) a poor Jamaican country boy who comes to Kingston in search of a job. Despite a promising start as a singer, Ivan gets ripped off and soon descends into crime and violence and ultimately pays the price for his guns and ganja lifestyle.
Jimmy Cliff is not only a great singer and songwriter but is also a convincing actor in his role as Ivan the anti-hero of The Harder They Come. While the film pulls no punches in its bleak and tough depiction of life in the shanty towns of Kingston Jamaica, it is also a testament to the strength of its inhabitants.
There are some great scenes notably the palpable joy when Ivan gets his bid for fame in a studio and performs The Harder They Come with the cream of reggae session men.
To those unfamiliar with the dense Jamaican patois spoken in the movie, some of the dialogue may be hard to follow, but the film is so visual that it doesn't take a classical linguist to understand this modern day parable of corrupted youth. The image of pistol toting Ivan in his rude boy threads has been perhaps taken at face value and come to represent a call to arms for the Gangtsa culture, which is at odds with Perry Henzell's more measured and moralistic message.
The soundtrack for The Harder They Come is a goldmine of late 60's / early 70's classic reggae which no music fan should be without. It includes Jimmy Cliff's optimistic Stax soul influenced You Can Get It If You Really Want, the defiant title track The Harder They Come and the soulful, hymnal Many Rivers to Cross. Elsewhere you get Rude Boy anthems like Desmond Dekker's 007 and The Slickers' Johnny Too Bad plus The Melodians' Rivers of Babylon in its pure original form before Boney-M's butchery. Karaoke fans can also enjoy singing along to a second version of You Can Get It If you Really Want with the verses faded out!
The film is a classic and its central character Ivan is immortalised in a million wall posters not to mention the Clash's Guns of Brixton. Latterly it has become a stage musical currently doing the rounds in London's West End. Whilst I've not seen the musical in full, I saw a decidedly dazzling excerpt last week and was bowled over by it.
If you like films like City of God, you cannot afford to miss The Harder They Come.