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  Harder They Come, The Man Of The PeopleBuy this film here.
Year: 1972
Director: Perry Henzell
Stars: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman, Basil Keane, Bob Charlton, Winston Stona, Lucia White, Volair Johnson, Beverley Anderson, Clover Lewis, Elijah Chambers, Prince Buster, Ed 'Bim' Lewis, Bobby Loban, Joanne Dunn
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Music
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: Ivanhoe Martin (Jimmy Cliff) had been living in the Jamaican countryside with his grandmother, but now she has died he ventures forth to Kingston, the nation's capital, with the hopes he can make something of himself there. He has one song he has written that he knows will be a hit if he gets the chance to record it for the city's main music producer, but it's a matter of getting it to him, and that's not going to be easy. In the meantime he visits his mother after having his belongings stolen to break her the bad news, but she cannot offer him a place to live - so where can he go?

The first Jamaican produced movie ever made, The Harder They Come was one of those films better known for their soundtracks than the actual content, and it was credited with popularising reggae and the distinctive musical styles from its native country for decades afterwards thanks to the superb vocals of its star. Director Perry Henzell obviously knew a good thing when he heard it, because he took every opportunity to play a classic track during the story, not only by Cliff but by Toots and the Maytals (who appear in the studio at one point) and Desmond Dekker, but it's Jimmy's show pretty much all the way.

That this was made in such a state of hardship renders it a minor miracle that it was ever completed at all, but it was and went on to be one of the major midnight movies around the world where it played in subtitled prints to better translate the Jamaican patois that most of the dialogue was conducted in. If it was the tunes that most watched this to hear, then they might have been surprised at how political it was into the bargain, far from the holiday destination that it had been previously seen as with much of the action taking place in the shanty towns that Ivan winds up in as he finallly finds a place to live with a hypocritical Christian preacher (Basil Keane).

There's a bright side to that in that he meets the woman the preacher has been acting as guardian to all these years, Elsa (Janet Bartley), who acts as the conscience of the story while Ivan descends into criminality (at times quite viciously so), yet sees his stardom ascend in the process. Elsa is being kept by the minister because he plans to make her his wife eventually, but our anti-hero puts paid to all that when he whisks her away from a fairly comfortable lifestyle singing in the choir and they end up in a shack while his record that he has cut does nothing, in spite of it being the all-time champion title track.

If there's a strain on credulity it's that the obviously hugely talented Ivan would ever struggle quite as much as he does, but aside from Chris Blackwell's Island, who had a vested interest in this movie and who Cliff was signed to, the record industry in Jamaica was notorious for not giving its artists their due, and in this atmosphere of corruption Ivan succumbs to its lure, making his money not through singing but through the illegal ganja trade. As the character of Ivan was based on a real life Jamaican gangster known as Rhyghing, who caught the imagination of the public much as the fictional Rude Boy did here, it will come as little surprise that his rebellious nature gets him into trouble.

It is these circumstances that see him become famous as he rebels against the police and shoots one of them, landing him on the run as Elsa can only look sorrowfully on, but don't go thinking this is all sombre and serious, as Henzell not only lifted the spirits with the music and Cliff's infectiously joyful personality (oddly, the star considered himself more an actor than a singer), but with some well applied humour - see the shootout conducted with Ivan dressed in nothing but his underpants since he was interrupted while cheating on Elsa. I especially like the fan who asks for one of Ivan's famous posed photographs and can only repeat in amazement, "Backside!", yet there was a rich commentary on folk heroes and how they translate from culture to reality, emphasised by a cinema audience watching Django - they both end up the same way, basically. There was a lot going on in The Harder They Come, then, one of the true classics of Third World cinema.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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