Published on June 4th, 2012 | by Ryan Wells0
“The Harder They Come” runs from June 6 at IFC Center.
Running time: 120 minutes. Rated R.
Perry Henzell’s “The Harder They Come,” now in its fortieth year since its worldwide release (February 1973 marked its U.S. debut), is a glorious game of genre mixing and indie enthusiasm that really, perhaps, did more than it thought it would upon its delivery. Not only is it considered Jamaica’s first feature-length film; it also gave audiences outside of the island their first big dose of reggae beats. And as they say, the rest is history.
“The Harder They Come” isn’t necessarily a Caribbean cousin of Blaxploitation, though one can’t help but see the parallels in its contemporaries, especially “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” (1971), “The Legend of Nigger Charley” (1972), and “Black Caesar” (1973), which mix crime, sly political and racial critiques, and a soundtrack that often outshines the film itself. Henzell’s film, though at times amateurish and rusty, digs deeper, past the stylistics, and gives audiences a very personal struggle of classism, political corruption, and lyrical beauty running rampant in Kingston at the time.
Playing the country hick Ivan Martin, who makes it infamously big, is the pop singer Jimmy Cliff. Cliff, more than Henzell, became the face of “The Harder They Come,” not simply because of his prior notoriety as a musician, but also because of his stamp on the soundtrack, which features three songs penned and sung by Cliff including the eponymous title track. The reference to Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin, the mid-1940s Jamaican gangster who launched a thousand warrants for his arrest while stealing the hearts of the general public, wasn’t exactly hard to disguise.
Ivan stumbles through various worlds of power—the church, the drug and music industries—all the while thumbing his nose at each one of them either intentionally or unintentionally. He’s not a drifter per se, but rather a real talent who simply isn’t making all the right decisions (the film’s third act only underscores this). He courts the shy ward (Janet Bartley) of a local minister (Basel Keane) who backs his promising musical career, and he promises her material rewards unimaginable in return. “All talk!” she says. (One splendid scene has Ivan in church watching the choir and congregation wriggle with conviction all the while fantasizing about making sweet love to the bare-breasted ingénue somewhere lovely, like the beach.)
His big break really does come, if only momentarily. A record he’s been bragging about for ages is finally given the chance to get heard professionally. It’s well received by a local shyster music producer (Bob Charlton) who swaps him twenty bucks for rights to the music. He realizes it’s a scam, but after he speaks with numerous DJs it turns out that there’s really no other way than to sell out to the producer and take the pittance and go home. (Supposedly the incident was modeled on Cliff’s own experience starting out in the music business.)
Really, we have two films in “The Harder They Come.” The first half is genuine, soulful, and honest about any old single man whose good fortune does not, it seems, come easy (or at least without a catch). The second, where things take a melodramatic swirl towards thirties Warner Brothers or the Japanese yakuza films, just feels like box checking, not sincerity. (Drug dealing begins the downfall—morality check. Check.). In other words, the shoot-’em-up finale, which drags on for thirty minutes or so, becomes an exercise in endurance. It’s as if Henzell and Co. figured mass appeal needs bullets in order to go big (maybe it did?). If we’re aiming for public backing of Ivan, surely, call it a day upon his first fatal shooting. And break from there.
Still, the film broke ground where nothing—the Jamaican film industry, that is—stood. And while, yes, there’s Bob Marley, who symbolically became reggae itself, especially abroad, there’s also “The Harder They Come.” And it’s impossible to think Marley, whose own career beginnings preceded the film by several years, though not on the scale of the post-1972 era, would have had such global success without Henzell’s film paving the way for him and other artists to get the audience they deserved. How many films can claim that? Not many.