"The Harder They Come"

Perry Henzell's gleeful rabble-rouser about a reggae outlaw returns with some of its original luster restored -- and then there's that killer soundtrack.

Published November 20, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"The Harder They Come"
Directed by Perry Henzell
Starring Jimmy Cliff
Criterion Collection; widescreen (1.66:1)
Extras: Commentary by Henzell and Cliff; interview with record producer Chris Blackwell

When it exploded in U.S. theaters in the early '70s, campus hipsters everywhere adopted "The Harder They Come" as a fable of political and musical rebellion. They transformed this feral Jamaican film into a mainstream American phenomenon: one of the great college-town hits of its era.

On the audio commentary track to this Criterion DVD, producer, director and co-writer Perry Henzell says that he thought the movie played like two different films to international and homegrown audiences. While American students escaped into its thrilling otherness, black Jamaicans, recognizing themselves on the big screen for the first time, reacted with unselfconscious, squalling cheers.

A well-bred white Jamaican with a countercultural bent, Henzell geared the entire film for explosiveness, starting with his choice of subject. The hero of this gleeful rabble-rouser is a sexy, innocent country boy who hopes to score big in Kingston singing sizzling, street-inspired reggae music. He gets his chance to record, but balks when the local mogul offers him a mere $20 per song. So he enters the island's marijuana trade -- and there, too, he's a rebel. He refuses to kowtow to the trade's regulators (who include the police), and becomes a legendary outlaw and cop killer, a symbol of underclass revolt. He turns into a pop star when the one track he records -- the catchy title number -- inflames the countryside.

In the early '70s, the most seductive image offered to young black males in American movies was Superfly: a hustler preying on sybaritic white people. In "The Harder They Come," reggae star Jimmy Cliff gets to embody a black folk hero with the stature of a Jamaican Jesse James. As Henzell and Cliff clarify on this DVD (which intercuts interviews conducted separately with each of them), the movie's enduring, primal strength rests on the quasi-documentary foundation they laid for it. Cliff says that Henzell would often ask the singer how he would react to the circumstances of a scene. Henzell stresses his reliance on nonprofessional actors and actual locations to provide the movie with an electric ambience. It's not surprising that he acknowledges the influence of Gillo Pontecorvo, the director of "Burn!" and "The Battle of Algiers."

Henzell and his co-writer, Trevor Rhone, based their script both on a real '50s outlaw, Rhygin (whose name may have come from the English word "raging"), and on the rise of reggae music. Cross-fertilized from Jamaican pop and African drums, from the rolling pastoral rhythms of the dispersed rural poor and from the hopped-up American rock 'n' roll and R&B that reverberated on cheap transistor radios, reggae was more exciting to ghetto blacks and more threatening to other Jamaicans than earlier tropical crazes like calypso music. The singing group Toots and the Maytals, often credited with coining the word "reggae," once defined it as music that sprang from the regular: everyday ghetto life in west Kingston. It depicted slum dwellers' frustrations as well as their hopes for redemption.

Henzell's gust of inspiration was to fuse this music with imagery and yarn spinning so elemental that they register as an extension of reggae's ganja-soaked atmosphere. Indeed, Henzell says he split with Rhone when the theater-trained writer objected to performances that lacked conventional dramatic "projection." Henzell remarks drolly that the end-credit shot -- a closeup of a woman's gyrating rump -- couldn't be more basic. You could say the same, he admits, about the entire movie.

Yet that's not a put-down. With street-proud attitudes and juicy tropical emotions, this film renews the timeless story of the simple country man who refuses to drown in an urban cesspool. Record producer Chris Blackwell notes in a video interview that he endorsed the casting of Cliff partly because he exuded the innate drive and power of a pop star in the making. As lyrical as he is avid, Cliff invests the Rhygin-inspired role of Ivan with the conviction of an actor who has run through many of his scenes in real life. The way Cliff plays him, Ivan puts on an ingratiating mask when he isn't singing or shooting. But when he performs, as either a gunman or a reggae star, his emotions come to points as sharp and clear as bullet holes.

Cliff's songs range from the triumphant but nihilistic anthem "The Harder They Come" ("the harder they fall -- one and all") to the sunny "You Can Get It if You Really Want" ("you'll succeed at last") and the soulful, melancholy "Many Rivers to Cross" ("but I can't seem to find my way over"). He's joined by other artists who helped stoke the reggae movement: Toots and the Maytals doing "Pressure Drop," an indelibly sweaty expression of a guilty conscience; Desmond Dekker and his evocative "Shanty Town" ("dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail in shanty town"); and the Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad," a denunciation of the violent Kingston rude boys who patterned their behavior after movie gangsters and gunslingers.

Henzel attempts, without moralizing, to chart Ivan's own media-fed violence and narcissism; he also addresses reggae's marijuana-flavored spirituality, the purity and the hypocrisy of rigid Jamaican Christians and the repressive collusion of all branches of the island's Establishment. By the end, he loses his balance, trying to position Ivan somewhere between victim of circumstance and homicidal Robin Hood. But days after you see this movie, images of Cliff nuzzling a beautiful preacher's ward (Janet Bartley) or getting off on his own galvanic minstrelsy keep skittering through your mind.

Scratches and fading marred the theatrical rerelease print two years ago, but on this DVD "The Harder They Come" looks almost as lush as it did when it broke records at the now-defunct Orson Welles Cinemas in Cambridge, Mass. The movie has lost just a bit of its sheen, but none of its heat. This is one DVD that gives you fever.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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