Growing up on Maui, there was no escaping the rhythmic pull and verbal richness of the music of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. The latter is my favorite reggae artist, but that’s like saying The Beatles are better than The Rolling Stones, isn’t it? There is a distinction, however, that gives Cliff the edge over Marley, and that’s The Harder They Come. If you only know the music, you don’t know the whole story.
In 1972, a white Jamaican playwright named Perry Henzell wrote and directed the first ever motion picture made in Jamaica. Based on the life of 1940s gangster Ivanhoe Martin, The Harder They Come is set in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1970s, with Cliff playing him as a singer and drug dealer (the real Martin was neither) who struggles to build a music career. Although Martin is a virtuoso singer, the local record executives abuse their clients and rob them of proper payment. Martin becomes a criminal and goes on the run while the local authorities pursue him.
Everyone involved with this film was making their debut, resulting in a scrappy, sometimes meandering, but always gritty, authentic, and rewarding work of independent cinema. Henzell shows us the tough side of Jamaica, filmed with documentary-like vividness, with visible poverty and crime – not the picture postcard version for the tourists. The violence is rough, even shocking at times, and the story doesn’t go where you expect it to. Unless you’re from Kingston, I recommend the use of subtitles, as the accents and Caribbean slang are thick.
To state the obvious, the music is sensational and used not only as performance pieces (we see Martin recording the iconic tracks in the studio) but as storytelling tools. Anyone who loves Reggae music knows all the lyrics to the title song, the gorgeous “Sitting in Limbo,” and “Many Rivers to Cross.” On the other hand, you won’t see a more glorious sight than Cliff, smiling giddily, as he takes a ride in a stolen car while “You Can Get It if You Really Want” plays on the soundtrack.
A bold touch is how Martin’s character becomes gradually less sympathetic as the story progresses. Henzell’s film can be compared to Prince’s Purple Rain and Eminem’s 8 Mile, in that they’re edgy music dramas about an artist struggling for the recognition and break he deserves. Unlike those movies, The Harder They Come traces Martin’s journey from a Kingston youth who cheers on the bad guy at the local cinema, to actually becoming the villain of his own movie.
Henzell’s film was a homegrown success in Jamaica (he joked that everyone who initially saw the movie was in the movie) and had a slow start in Europe. It initially bombed in the US, as Roger Corman picked it up and distributed it through his New World label as a Blaxploitation title, along the lines of Shaft and Superfly. While a companion piece to those films in some ways (certainly as a depiction of Black pride and empowerment), it’s nothing like those movies. Along with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Henzell’s film became a midnight movie smash, connected with the counterculture, and brought a widespread awareness of reggae music.
Today, Cliff is 72-years-young, was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and continues to perform. His take on “I Can See Clearly Now” (from the Cool Runnings soundtrack) connected him to a young audience and has only added to his legendary status. Watching Cliff here, at age 24 and before a highly accomplished career, is to see an artist of great charisma and vitality in his element. At one point, Martin declares (to his co-star but mostly to us) “Didn’t I tell you I was gonna be famous one day?”
Henzell’s film is a time capsule but doesn’t feel dated. It portrays the gap between the wealthy and the poor, the struggles everyone must make to realize their dreams, and how moral compromise can lead to our undoing. The Harder They Come remains a breakthrough in many ways and a thrilling, important work that introduced the world to the music that provides the soundtrack to our lives. (On Kanopy)
Rated R/120 Min.
A Toe-tapping Documentary
20 Feet from Stardom, Morgan Neville’s illuminating documentary from 2013, gives voice to the background singers from some of music’s most indelible hits. We meet various performers and hear their stories of what it’s like providing vocal texture for hits by the likes of Bob Dylan. My favorite interview subject is Darlene Love (Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Mrs. Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon movies), who has a surprising take on the controversial lyrics in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” For music lovers, this is a must. (On Netflix)
A Cult Classic:
Confession time: My introduction to music legend and Maui’s own Kris Kristofferson wasn’t “Me and Bobby McGee” or A Star is Born or even Heaven’s Gate. No, the first time I ever encountered Kristofferson’s work was in Big Top Pee-Wee, where he played Mace Montana, the circus ringmaster with a wife (named Midge) who is so small, he carries her in his pocket. This sequel to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure isn’t a comic masterpiece like its predecessor, but, if you’re a fan of the genius of Paul Reubens and his surreal brand of comedy, it’s charming and wacky in all the right ways. It has the longest kissing scene in film history (a hysterical bit), and yes, that’s Benicio Del Toro in his film debut, playing Duke, the Dog-Faced Boy. (On Hulu)
A Final Note:
For those of you wondering what Kanopy is, nothing but good news: It’s a free streaming service for anyone with a Hawaiʻi State Public Library System card. They’ve got hundreds of choices, ranging from comedies, westerns, documentaries and horror films. They’ve got Best Picture winner Moonlight, art house hits like The Farewell and Midsommar, classics like The Conversation, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and even the surf cinema essential, The Endless Summer. Go to Librarieshawaii.kanopy.com for details.
Images courtesy imdb
Looking for other films to watch at home? Check out film critic Barry Wurst II’s streaming recommendations: