The Harder They Come: How one film helped reggae rise up

We look back at the film which made a star of Jimmy Cliff and did so much to bring reggae music from Jamaica to a much wider audience.

“The Harder They Come had a great deal to do with the spread of Rasta and roots music… it took you right into roots culture and how people lived in Jamaica at the time. It introduced people to the fact that there was more to reggae music than the happy stuff that had been hits at the time” – Jimmy Cliff, taken from Bass Culture by Lloyd Bradley

If you ask most music fans who was responsible for taking reggae from a very localised and still very new Jamaican musical culture and turning it into a global phenomenon in the mid-1970’s they would almost certainly tell you that one man, Bob Marley, was pretty much single-handedly responsible. And whilst there’s no denying the impact Marley made and his role in the history of reggae, his rise to super-stardom was preceded by a few very important milestones.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s as reggae began to establish itself as something seperate from the rocksteady and ska music that it grew out of there were a few random songs that made it out of the Caribbean’s third largest island. Songs like Millie’s “My Boy Lollipop” and Desmond Dekker’s “The Israelites” had introduced white, western audiences to the sound of reggae’s off-beat driven rhythms and black Jamaican culture. Jimmy Cliff himself had also managed two hits – “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” and “Wild World” – in the UK, which thanks to its colonial connections and large expat community had become the music’s primary foreign market.

However, reggae was still dismissed by many in the mainstream as novelty music with little or no enduring appeal. Many of the other reggae hits from this period tended to be ‘reggae-fied’ covers of hits of the day. This did little to establish its cultural credentials, and only the previously mentioned self-penned smash by Desmond Dekker with it’s ‘sufferah’ lyrics influenced by Rastafarian ideology had shown people a different side. For the sake of it’s development reggae needed a vehicle to show its true nature as a modern folk music, deeply reflective of life in its home country at the time.

the harder they come starring reggae singer jimmy cliff film poster

Which is where The Harder They Come enters the story. Jimmy Cliff was initially approached sometime in 1970 by film director Perry Henzell who asked Cliff if he could write the soundtrack for a film he had co-written with Jamaican writer Trevor Rhone. However, as Cliff himself would later say “The next thing I knew, he was sending me the script and asking me to play the lead. I think he was taken aback by my self-confidence. I’d never acted before, but I jumped at the opportunity”.

The film stars Cliff as Ivanhoe Martin, a poor country boy who leaves his rural home behind to find work in Kingston. The character is partly based on and named after a real-life Jamaican outlaw Vincent “Ivanhoe” Martin, more popularly known as Rhyging. Cliff noted in Bass Culture “When I was a little boy… you would hear about Rhyging – Rhyging is a word in Jamaican that mean hot, mean bad”. This kind of outlaw character was popular in Jamaican cinemas which showed an endless stream of American westerns and cop movies, as well as things like the James Bond series, films that were lapped up by Kingston audiences.

After initially having no luck finding work he finally gets a job as an errand boy for a local record producer using a bike he found and repaired. When the bike’s original owner tries to reclaim it a fight ensues resulting in Ivan slashing the bike-owner’s face with a knife, for which he is arrested and sentenced to a whipping. Ivan subsequently decides that music is what he should be doing and convinces the producer to record a song he has written, the title track of the film. However, he is disappointed when the producer offers him a paltry $20 for the song, something Cliff claimed was representative of the way the real Jamaican music industry operated – “That part was actually my life – or the lives of so many of the guys in Kingston who want to make it in the music business”.

Angry about his experience Ivan turns to selling marijuana, and ends up shooting a policeman who tries to stop his bike. On the run, Ivan ends up killing more policemen and leaves Kingston to hide out in the country. In the meantime, and partly due to his rising notoriety, his single becomes a big success making him something of a local star, something which boosts Ivan’s ego and fuelling his sense of invincibility. The film ends with a very spaghetti-western inspired (such films were big in Jamaican cinemas at the time) shoot-out Ivan is apparently killed although the film cuts before we see anything, ending the film on a slightly enigmatic note in much the same way as Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.

Upon it’s global release by New World Pictures in February 1973 it attracted positive reviews but initially gained little attention. However, word-of-mouth and repeated late night screenings both in the UK and US allowed it to slowly but surely become a hit. The film was the first to bring an honest, gritty portrayal of Jamaican ghetto life to the world at large, and was notable for the fact that despite being an English language film the use of heavy patois required English subtitles for audiences unable to decipher the thick accents and idiosyncratic slang.

As much as the film it was the soundtrack album that really helped bring reggae to larger attention. Aside from the title track Cliff contributed two other huge hits “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and the more soul-inspired “Many Rivers To Cross”, and this sat alongside other 24-carat cuts like “Johnny Too Bad” by The Slickers, “Pressure Drop” and “Sweet & Dandy” by Toots & the Maytals, “Rivers Of Babylon” by The Melodians and “007 (Shanty Town)” by Desmond Dekker. The album pre-dated Bob Marley’s breakthrough album Catch A Fire by some 6 months and did much to open the market up for him, bringing roots reggae to audiences more familiar with rock music.

Looking back now the impact of both the film and the soundtrack can not be under-estimated. Cliff says “It was The Harder They Come that opened up the international market, as up until then I don’t think roots music could have made sense to many people outside Jamaica”. The Harder They Come played a huge role in bringing the music, culture, and lifestyle of Jamaica to worldwide attention. It also gave us one of the greatest soundtrack albums of all time, and probably one of the greatest reggae albums too. By raising reggae’s profile and bringing more money in to the island’s music business it helped fan the flames of this great musical export allowing it to grow and flourish. And whilst it’s still true that for many reggae begins and ends with Bob Marley, for those of us who dig deeper we have much to thank this wonderful film for.

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